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I’ve spent a lot of the past couple of weeks looking at things around library search, partly for the RISE project (where we are looking at developing a service to provide recommendations to users searching our Ebsco Discovery Solution), and partly because I’ve been thinking about how we should be presenting search on our new website. 

So we’ve been looking at examples of approaches from elsewhere, looking at what users have been saying about library search, looking at the data of how people are actually using the search tools on our current website and reading a few reports and documents.  This week there have also been some interesting blog posts about the area of library search and discovery solutions, not least Aaron Tay’s recent post looking at putting LibGuides into Discovery solutions, One Search Box to search them All  and Jane Burke’s series of posts about library search on InfoViews which point to areas where library search doesn’t work.

Approaches to search presentation
Looking at the approach that libraries are taking with the way they present search on their websites then there seems to be a lot of common ground. OU SearchMany have adopted a tabbed approach, where different types of search are nested, (in our case a collections search for articles, a website and a catalogue search).  Examples of this approach include NCSU, Michigan and Auckland.  Others are using radio buttons to do something similar such as Huddersfield.  Even the University of Houston Downtown which offers a single LibSearch box to search everything here offers a tabbed search on their home page.  The single LibSearch search goes to their version of Summon. 

In some ways it’s almost possible to see the slow steps towards a single ‘Google-like’ search for libraries as they start to get to grips with the potential of the new generation of search tools.  And build up confidence that the tool is the right one for users.

So how do users feel about library search?
In last year’s library survey we had quite a lot of feedback about how students found searching for library resources.  Looking at the words used to describe search in the open comments then ‘difficult’ featured prominently.  At the time we were using federated search, which although an improvement on what went before, was hardly an engaging user experience.  Since then we’ve implemented Ebsco Discovery Solution and are doing some work now to evaluate how users are finding it.  But our presentation through the website is still a tabbed search approach that effectively says to the user ‘describe what sort of stuff you want using our language and then pick which one of these boxes might have the answer’  That seems a bit like that TV programme where you pick from a series of red boxes and have to guess what’s inside!

What are users doing?
So we’ve been looking at what searches people are putting into the search boxes to see if we can understand more about search behaviour.  Library search termsWe’ve looked at both our discovery search and the older federated search, and our catalogue and website searches.   Looking at the top 20 results for each type of search then we find that about 40% of them are identical across all the search boxes. That goes up to over 50% if you look at 3 out of 4 search boxes.  The table shows the common search terms with a coloured highlight and the 3 out of 4 terms with a grey background.

The search terms that are being applied to the search boxes suggest that users don’t understand which search boxes to use, so they put them into all of them. Now that may be because users don’t understand the way we label the different search boxes or the terminology we use.    If that’s the case then maybe a single search box is the way to go. 

But does that then open up a presentation issue about how do you show the results?  Which ones come from the website, from library resources or from the catalogue?  But does it actually matter to a user?  Libraries organise content into collections for a variety of reasons and I’m not convinced that users always need to know about how we organise stuff.  We seem to have a whole load of things in between the ‘Have you got this?’ and ‘Here it is’ that aren’t of interest to most users. ‘What type of stuff is it?’, ‘Which collection is it in?’, ‘If it’s this type of stuff look here, or that type look there’. Is that a carry over from the concept of a ‘reference interview’ where we go through an iterative process to connect the user with the content.  In which case I wonder if that is appropriate in the self-service, instant, web world?

Workshops… and yet more workshops
In parallel with some of the technical preparatory work we’ve kicked off a series of workshops with our staff.  Organised by one of the web team we are using them as a way of getting library staff involved in the process and generating some discussion about aspects such as user requirements. These ideas then lead on to a prototype information architecture and a set of ideas that  can be tested with users to validate or modify them.

So far we’ve run three different workshops.  About half of the library staff have been to at least one of the workshops so we’re pretty pleased at the amount of engagement we’ve had so far.  And they’ve brought up a lot of interesting ideas and some challenges.  In this blog post I’m going to outline the activities that we’ve been running and put down some thoughts about the things that are coming out of the workshops.

Workshop 1
We kicked off the process with a small workshop with participants drawn from the two groups in the library who are most closely involved with the website: our website editorial group and our User Experience Group.  Between them there is representation from across the library, with a strong core of learning and teaching librarians, who have day to day contact with users via our library Helpdesk service.

The workshop was asked to carry out an exercise to identify the different types of users of our website, identify what their needs were, why they were coming to the website, and what tasks they were trying to accomplish.   The background to this is that at the moment there is a single website that tries to meet all user needs, yet the library services that are available to students are distinctly different to those available to academics for example.  So, whilst knowing how to renew a library book is important for an academic based on campus it isn’t much use for a student who isn’t able to borrow.

Workshop 2
This workshop was open to staff across the library as part of our regular programme of Staff Development activities.  In an hour-long session a fairly large group were asked to carry out two activities.  Firstly a card sort exercise, taking the current 2nd level website titles and structuring them into what seemed like a logical structure.  They were also asked to comment on any terminology that was unclear. 

As a second exercise the group was asked to look at some examples of retail websites and look at them from the point of view of their Help and Support services.  This exercise was to get staff away from a narrow view of what library websites could be (as there is a tendancy for them to end up with similar features – although you could argue that they are trying to meet similar needs). 

Workshop 3
The final workshop had a smaller number of staff (about 10) from across the library and again looked at the website structure.   The workshop looked at the output from the earlier structure workshop and refined it further.  It also looked again at page naming and how best to handle the different requirements of distinct user types.

Outcomes and reflections
There were a few key messages coming out of the workshops. 

  • Separate landing pages for some of the main user groups may be a good idea – this implies users having to login which opens up some customisation and personalisation potential but means that users would have services relevant to them on the home page
  • A simpler structure and simpler terminology e.g. About Us rather than Library Information
  • Language should be used that is more familar to students
  • Some pages need better names, could be dropped or merged – there was quite a lot of feedback that it wasn’t clear what some pages were about
  • Where pages have information aimed at different user groups then they either need to have a consistent format (i.e. always with the student information at the top), or be split into separate pages that are fed to appropriate users

Next steps
As an output from the workshops we now have a prototype Information Architecture and some ideas around naming conventions.  Our next step is to start to check these ideas with users, probably through surveys at this stage.  So we will want to check what they want to see on the home page, how they would like the site to be structured and what they would prefer sections to be called.   Ideally it would be good to use something like treejack to help with testing the structure.

This week’s staff development session gave the opportunity to hear from Hazel Woodward, Cranfield University Librarian talking about the impact of the economic downturn on academic libraries.  The session was based on her presentation at the Association of Subscription Agents Conference earlier this year (the slides from the presentation are available at

Surveying the landscape and prospects for HE, taking in the 2010/11 Hefce budget cut of £449 million, through key points from the Higher Ambition report and then turning to the CIBER report ‘Challenges for academic libraries in difficult economic times’ there is a clear picture of change for HE libraries.  With standstill or reducing budgets and with e-resource budgets taking up an ever-increasing proportion of library budgets it is clear that there are major challenges over the next few years.

Woodwood slide economic downturn and libraries

Slide from Hazel Woodward presentation to ASA

As someone fairly new to academic libraries but with some experience of reducing budgets from a public library perspective it is interesting (to me at least!) to compare how the different sectors are approaching the challenges of reducing budgets.

The details of the CIBER survey indicate that academic libraries are more likely to react to budget pressures by reducing staffing (than public libraries) although I’d suspect that this may be because academic library staffing establishments have been rising across the past few years while public libraries have been reducing their staff year on year so may have less scope now for reductions.

69% of survey respondents also expect to spend the same or less on resources and with resource prices rising at higher than inflation a standstill budget represents a reduction in real terms.  It seems clear that there is a growing disquiet with the way that resource budgets are consuming an increasing proportion of library budgets, with e-resources from the major suppliers being a large part of that budget and with concern at how much print stock is inactive.

What I do find intriguing is the slide from the survey that looks at the trade-off analysis and shows that senior librarians would prefer to cut resources or services rather than cut staff.   It would be interesting to see what answer academics and users might give to this question as it goes to the heart of how much of the value of a library is tied up in its collections, services and expertise.

Slide from CIBER report Making Cutbacks

Within the public library sphere library budgets have seen frequent reductions for much of the past decade and the approach has been one where discretionary spending has been cut, where opening hours have reduced, libraries have closed and book funds have reduced.  Where possible income-generating and children’s library stock budgets have often been protected at the expense of other stock such as adult non-fiction.

Public libraries have also seen substantial changes in their staffing.  Flatter structures have been introduced by taking out tiers of middle managers.  Management Teams have reduced in size as managers are given broader ranges of responsibility.  Public libraries have also seen a very significant loss of more experienced staff in specialist roles.  Many have lost Music and Reference specialists, often losing staff with decades of irreplaceable experience.  Bibliographical services teams have seen the numbers of qualified librarians within them reducing, cataloguers becoming an endangered species and specialist Library IT roles reducing as Library IT roles are being taken over by Corporate IT services.

While some academic libraries have started doing this they maybe aren’t as far along the road of making these types of staffing changes and it will be interesting to see whether over the next few years academic libraries start to adopt similar approaches.

Both sectors are also looking at Shared Services, the concept of sharing services (often support services) between organisations as a way of reducing costs.  But there is a difference in that whilst the HE sector is a competitive environment public libraries aren’t (theoretically at least) competing with each other.  Although with benchmarking, CIPFA statistics, a universal library card and so on, I’m not sure that public libraries don’t actually compete with each other.  Certainly there is a long history of users on the margins of London boroughs using neighbouring boroughs library services.  With Shared Services opening up the possibility of library services (or elements of them) being delivered collaboratively or even taken over by other libraries that would seem to be an option that could be taken up in either sector.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years how academic libraries will respond to the economic pressures and whether they will take similar or different approaches to budget reductions whilst delivering relevant services to their users whose expectations are increasing and changing.

I’ve just realised that I’ve been working in the HE library sector for just over a year now.  In line with trying to be more reflective it seemed a good time to put together a blog post to think about some of the differences and similarities between HE libraries and the public library sector where I’ve spent much of my working life.

I think the first reflection is that in many ways I’m working in an HE library that is atypical.  Most students never visit the library building, print collections are mainly for academics and researchers and resources for students are electronic.  So a number of the differences are purely a reflection of that different service model.  It’s quite a change from working in a public library building where your users are always present and visible and their preoccupation is still overwhelmingly with your print collection.

Technology is one of the big differences. Ostensibly there are similarities in the systems being used.  Both public and academic have library management systems, library catalogues, user PCs, wifi and self-service.   But there are a whole layer of systems such as SFX, ezproxy and remote authentication systems that don’t really appear on the radar for public libraries as they don’t have large collections of electronic resources.   Public libraries are starting to look at new OPAC systems such as Aquabrowser that include federated search capabilities but HE libraries have been working with federated search for some years and are now moving to aggregated search systems such as Summon.

Many public libraries have started to offer e-books and downloads through services such as Overdrive but their collections are tiny in comparison with the tens of thousands of titles that HE libraries typically have available.   Many are reaching the stage where electronic acquisitions are higher than print acquisitions. 

There’s another area with library systems where public libraries and HE libraries seem to differ.  Developments for library management systems in the HE sector seem much more likely to be developed in house or by taking code available from elsewhere.  In public libraries changes are likely to be provided by suppliers or third-parties.  So there seems to be more willingness or technical ability to customise OPACs and the LMS.

RSS feeds, XML, moving data out of one system and into another seems much more common in HE libraries.  That isn’t to say that there is less innovation in public libraries with library management systems, but it tends to be more focused on management information, management information or implementing third-party innovations.

I was struck at one of the first HE seminars I went to that there’s a very different approach to conference attendance.  Almost everyone has their laptop/netbook or other mobile device.  They are checking emails, blogging and/or twittering throughout the day in a way that I’d never come across at any public library focused event.  That is something that took a bit of time to get used to and find a method that worked for me. 

Blogs, wikis and other social networking tools are pretty much ubiquitous and although there is some public library use, in my experience public libraries often find their efforts frustrated by corporate communications departments  seeing it as being something that is outside of their control and therefore not allowable.  

Reference management, information literacy and information management are all high up the priority list for academic libraries whereas for public libraries it is much more about literacy in its broadest sense and access to services (and not just library services).  Although both have education at their heart it is quite interesting to discover quite what that means in practice.

I started finsihing off by writing a list of the different technologies that I’ve learnt something about in the past year and realised that it was a longer list than I’d expected.  So rather than a boring list, a slightly less boring wordle Wordle of new things to me

(although I’ve now realised that I’ve missed Wordle off the list and because of the number of times Google appears on the list (for Apps, Custom Search Engines and suchlike) it makes it appear that I’d never heard of Google!)

Reflecting on last week’s Innovations in Reference Management event. there was an interesting discussion at the panel session around whether libraries should be in the business of providing free reference management software.  The analogy was made that libraries don’t provide free pens (although somewhat ironically the event and venue did!), or free Office software so why should libraries buy subscriptions to products such as Endnote or RefWorks?

I think it is quite easy to understand why libraries might have started to offer such products.  I’d suggest that the train of thought went something like this:

  • Good practice in managing references should contribute to helping to deter plagiarism.
  • Libraries see reference management as one of the Information Literacy skills that they should teach.
  • Reference management software was mainly provided by paid-for products.
  • To encourage students to adopt good practice libraries should provide access to the software
  • Settling on one software package theoretically meant that libraries could concentrate on supporting one product

But, it was suggested and I’d certainly agree, the world has moved on.  There are now several web-based free tools (Zotero and Mendeley for example) and Reference Management features are built into Office 2007 so has come very much into the mainstream.  Users are likely to choose a product that suits them rather than using the product recommended by their course or library.  And they may already have invested in building their references in a tool and want to carry on with it.

I’d suspect that few libraries would now make the same kind of decision, particularly given the pressure on library budgets.   That leads me to wonder about whether libraries would continue with funding these products unless there are other reasons to retain the software.

The TELSTAR project’s approach (and I should declare an interest here in being involved with the project) is to build on the RefWorks subscription that the OU Library provides by creating a set of reference management tools within the Moodle VLE using the RefWorks API.   Users of the VLE can store their references in RefWorks and manage them from within the VLE.  RefWorks also becomes a repository for course and library references adding value to the RefWorks subscription.   But the approach isn’t the full answer as although the tools allow users to import and export references they can’t use their preferred tool to store their references but have to use RefWorks.

With bibliographic management tools proliferating libraries have some difficult decisions to make about which (if any) tools they should support or provide. Unless libraries find other ways of using bibliographic management tools I’d start to wonder how many libraries will start to see subscription tools as something they can no longer afford to provide.

Lorcan Dempsey recently shared a link to a presentation from University College Dublin ( about their experiences of using a consultancy to help develop a vision for their library website. The presentation is an interesting reflection on the process and some of the motivations behind why many libraries are grappling with the basic question ‘What should we do about our website?’

UCD identify feedback from users, the growth of their site, Web 2.0 and the increasingly wide range of library online presences  as leading them to the realisation that they needed a strategic view of the library’s online platform. The reasons behind using consultancy services include fairly common reasons such gaining access to expertise and a fresh perspective. It would be particularly interesting to know though whether the consultants had any prior library website experience and what selection criteria were used. For anything like this the choice of selection criteria is really critical for any tender. It is absolutely vital to make sure that the criteria reflect your priorities and there is sufficient granularity and weighting to ensure that you can shortlist and select appropriate suppliers.

The approach by the consultants was a fairly typical one with surveys, workshops and stakeholder interviews. It is quite intriguing that there was a lack of desktop research as that is often a strength of consultancy services. It is curious that feedback from the user survey was given more visibility than workshops and stakeholder interviews. There can be a tendency for stakeholder views to be given more credence.

The presentation identifies quite how inter-connected the library website is with the whole university website strategy and if that isn’t clear then it makes delivering a roadmap for a library website very difficult.

The comments from the surveys are particularly informative. It is fascinating that users aren’t that much interested in Web 2.0. It seems that there’s a small group of enthusiastic adopters but most students aren’t yet convinced that it has any great appeal or relevance (?) to them.

There’s also the often reported comment that users want a simplified ‘google-type’ search box. That’s a quest that has been exercising librarians and library systems people for quite some time and many are looking at the likes of Summon as a solution. I suppose I’d comment here that Google is only recently starting to bring back results that are more than just a list of webpages. It doesn’t really have the challenge of sorting out the range of different types of content and access permissions that libraries have to cope with. Creating a simple search box to search all our content is only part of the answer, the key is more around presenting the search results in a meaningful way that distinguishes between web sites, databases, books, ejournals, full text, abstracts, ebooks and an increasing amount of multimedia content.

Although UCD feel that the process could have achieved more there are some really good reflections that are picked up in their presentation. Key points around the importance of communicating, providing support and training, what user priorities are and of integration into the university web presence are valuable insights for university library websites.

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July 2020

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