Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Internet Access and End-User Needs: Computer Use in an Academic Library

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Internet Access and End-User Needs: Computer Use in an Academic Library

Article excerpt

To provide the most appropriate reference services it is necessary for reference staff to understand the nature of the work that library users undertake. In the area of end-user searching in a Web-based environment, our knowledge is sparse and out-of-date. The current electronic environment provides access to free Web sites and highly structured subscription indexes all from the same terminals, all with different interfaces, all on the Web. This project was conceived to shed light on researchers' behavior in this new context. Examining how patrons approach their research needs using online resources, the study gathered information on the variety of sources accessed, users' requests for assistance, perceived facility with the resources, and the degree of satisfaction with search results. While end users often believe they have the tools to search independently, both on the "free Web" and within library-supported products, their searches are not necessarily effective. Because these online searchers believe that they are adept and successful, however, providing appropriate professional assistance is a complex endeavor.

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For all the research conducted into user searching behavior, librarians are still unsure how scholars approach their quest for information through the use of online resources. While we continue to observe and report on search strategies and habits, our studies have become obsolete relatively quickly for several reasons. First, the population that uses these resources has changed dramatically in the last five years, becoming more computer savvy; second, the resources themselves have changed, now appealing directly to the end user; and third, the electronic environment that supports these tools is vastly different than it was just a few years ago.

Older computer-use studies often emphasized patrons' fear of searching electronically, or "computerphobia," focusing on the librarian's responsibility to alleviate that anxiety. (1) At an academic library today, the majority of users have grown up in a society inundated with computers and are more comfortable with these resources. According to a 1999 study of college freshmen, students were using the Internet at least as often as "traditional" print resources, and 70 percent felt that their future use of the Internet would increase. (2) Students are generally no longer interested in reading print indexes or encyclopedias if they can find something comparable online. Complaints from professors and teaching faculty that bemoan students' over-reliance on the Web further support these assertions. (3) One researcher noted that "this profound change that we conveniently call remote access caused some segments of the user population to swear off the full-service, real-world library. If it is not online and remotely accessible, they will do without it." (4)

In addition to this new wave of computer users, the resources themselves have changed drastically. The current batch of electronic indexes has a completely different look and feel than those prevalent a few years ago. Electronic indexes now emphasize accessibility to the end user over mediation by the information professional. (5) Librarians may resent the fact that their quick and focused searches are no longer possible through this interface and that speed and accuracy are sacrificed for ease and accessibility. The end user, however, is serenely unaware that the search mechanisms are less precise and that his or her searches may be less effective. Some tools also allow for a degree of natural-language queries in a search. This innovation in particular has great appeal to novice searchers who, then, do not have to struggle with key words and Boolean phrasing. Such differences among resources and their internal processing of search strings, however, can be very confusing to the end user and professional alike.

Finally, the searching environment is very different now from a few years ago. …

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