Why Do College Students Use Public Libraries? A Phenomenological Study

By Antell, Karen | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Why Do College Students Use Public Libraries? A Phenomenological Study


Antell, Karen, Reference & User Services Quarterly


This article presents the results of a study in which seventeen college students who use public libraries for their college assignments were interviewed about their reasons for using public libraries rather than academic libraries. Five factors emerged from the students" responses: personal convenience, materials, ease of use and familiarity, staff, and subjective appeal. Many of the students interviewed mentioned children, jobs, and other responsibilities, indicating that students who use public libraries might tend to be nontraditional students. Library anxiety also was identified as a possible contributing factor to students' choice of library. The implications of this study for further research in the area are discussed.

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This study arose from a phenomenon the author encountered while working at a public library reference desk in a university town: a surprising number of the patrons were university students who had chosen to use the public library rather than the university library for their homework and term papers, even though the university library's collection was naturally better suited to their information needs. Although this phenomenon was surprising to the author, other librarians at the reference desk offered hypotheses to explain the students' choice of library:

* "They're here because they can't park on campus."

* "They're here because we give them more help."

* "They're here because this is where they came in high school and they're just used to it."

* "They think all libraries are the same, so it doesn't matter to them which one they use."

* "They're intimidated by the size of the campus library, so they come here."

The public librarians wanted to give the students the best possible service. But sometimes that meant referring them back to the university library--not to send them "back where they belong," but to send them to the place where the resources they really needed were located. The problem was that the librarians did not know the students' reasons for choosing the public library. If the university library was somehow not useful to the students (due to parking issues, intimidation, or whatever), then referring them there was not necessarily the best reference service, even if the best materials were located at the university library. To provide the best reference service to students, then, the librarians needed to know more about the students' reasons for choosing the public library over the university library.

This study is not an attempt to evaluate formally any of the hypotheses mentioned above, for the simple reason that when this study was conducted, not enough was known about this issue to formulate good hypotheses. The informal hypotheses mentioned above may be based on anecdotal evidence or conversations overheard among college students using the public library, but until now, no one has directly and systematically asked college students who use public libraries why they do so. Exploring this issue by asking students their reasons is the first step in identifying legitimate hypotheses for further study, with the goal of providing better service to college students.

So, rather than testing any of the hypotheses listed above, this study is a qualitative exploration of the question, "why do college students choose public libraries over university libraries when doing school work?" It uses phenomenological interviews to identify the themes that emerge when students are asked to respond to this question, thereby suggesting areas for further research.

Literature Review

The literature has little to say about the topic of college students using public libraries. In 1987, Marvin Scilken editorialized:

   I feel terrible, but I don't feel guilty, when a college student
   asks me for books on a reading list. I feel terrible because I
   know, for the most part, the books will not be in our collection. … 

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