Is being friendly and courteous enough?

by Peggy Seiden and Lucy Saxon

This past spring, the Swarthmore College Libraries ran the LibQUAL+ survey for a second time. The survey was developed by the Association of Research Libraries and has been used by more than 1,000 institutions world-wide. It asks respondents to rate on a nine point scale their minimal, desired, and perceived level of library service on three dimensions – affect of service, information control, and library as place. There are also questions about use of the physical library and other sources of information, information literacy outcomes, and general satisfaction with the library.

We used the “lite” protocol under which any one respondent is only asked 8 questions, rather than answering all 22 core questions in the standard version. According to the LibQUAL+ web site, “the Lite protocol uses item sampling methods to (a) gather data on all 22 LibQUAL+ core items, while (b) only requiring given individual users to respond to a subset of the 22 core questions.” All users answer three core questions and the remaining questions are answered only by a randomly selected subset of respondents. Using this protocol, we had a far greater response rate than in 2005 when only 117 students and 69 faculty completed surveys. This year, 650 students and 104 faculty responded. About one-third of the respondents also provided comments.

The radargraph allows one to quickly assess the biggest areas of greatest and least satisfaction. In almost all cases, the perceived service quality is higher than the minimal expectation, but in two of the dimensions, information control and library as place, perceived service quality falls quite short of the desired level. The remainder of this article will posit a number of hypotheses as to why perception of service varies across these different dimensions.

As in 2005, respondents rated the library most highly on affect of service. In fact, among faculty, on five out of nine questions (employees who instill confidence in users; who are consistently courteous; who deal with users in a caring fashion; readiness to respond to users’ questions; and dependability in handling users’ service problems) the perceived mean was higher than the desired mean. Students also rated affect of service most highly, though they rated dependability in handling users’ service problems much lower than faculty (6.68 versus 8.06) and lower than any other question on this service dimension. It is likely that faculty and students define these service problems differently. Students are most likely to encounter problems when using equipment, particularly printers, whereas faculty are more likely to encounter problems around access to materials. One student wrote:
The printing services are incredibly frustrating; though I am a huge supporter of the new print release stations, the erratic nature of the printing process (text huge on one page, missing pages, etc.) is really just horrible. It takes almost 45 minutes on average for me to print out my materials for class.   
Another student said simply, “The printers are consistently a huge cause of troubles for me and a lot of my peers.”

Both faculty and students were less satisfied than in our last iteration of the survey regarding access and availability of resources (information control). Our average perceived level of service was well under the mean desired service level for the following criteria:
IC1 Making electronic resources accessible from my home or office.
IC2 A library Web site enabling me to locate information on my own.
IC4 The electronic information resources I need (a problem primarily for faculty).
IC8 Print and/or electronic journal collections I require for my work.

The library fell below the minimal mean for faculty on “making electronic resources available from my home or office.” The ability to find information via the library web site and accessibility of online journals were also problematic. One faculty member described her work-around for getting electronic articles: “I have an affiliation with Penn so I end up using their library system for most electronic journals (the primary sources that I use in my research) since they have even better access than we do.” This was not an uncommon strategy, another professor wrote:
“I think that the Swarthmore libraries do an amazing job of delivering excellent service given their limited resources. However, I — and I suspect a good number of my colleagues — must regularly access databases crucial to my research through the library accounts of friends because Swarthmore’s library cannot provide me with access to these often relatively expensive subscription databases. This is a bad situation.”

From other comments, we can deduce that part of the issue with satisfaction with ejournals may be based upon the lack of availability of online journal issues, particularly in the sciences, prior to the mid-1990s. It is only in the last few years that the major STM publishers have made their archival collections available digitally, and though we recognize our users’ preference for digital over print for journal article access, because of the cost, we have proceeded slowly in acquiring these materials, particularly where we already own them in print.   Interestingly,  a 2010 study from Columbia and the University of Virginia, found that users are never satisfied with the availability of journals – whether print or online.

We were also interested in whether the survey would elicit feedback on the new Tripod. While there were no specific questions on the catalog, there were three questions related to tools to help users locate information independently. Furthermore, both students and faculty commented on the new Tripod. Faculty raised concerns related to the relevancy ranking and the difficulty locating journal titles. Students liked the ability to search books and journals simultaneously, but their positive/negative comments were split about 50-50. A student who was familiar with the former Tripod interface, now called Tripod Classic, wrote:
“I prefer old Tripod. I think it allowed for more nuanced searches. I understand and see the benefits of new Tripod, I just wish that it had kept the same search options.” Another student countered, “I really like how Tripod is a central portal where materials and resources from a combination of different sources can be found at the same time.”  

LibQUAL+ also measures satisfaction with the web presence of the Libraries. The study asks students and faculty, “how often do you access library resources through a library webpage?” While the use of the physical library to access resources fell, so did the use of the library’s web page, by about 20% for both students and faculty. Still our data on major subscribed resources (JSTOR, Proquest, Web of Science) show an overall rise in searches of major resources, though the data is mixed. It is likely that both groups are connecting to subscribed resources through Google or Google Scholar. Self-reported use of non-library internet gateways to information was up. We also know anecdotally, that faculty patterns of information-seeking often rely on navigating to known sources (journal sites, preprint archives, or colleagues’ web pages) to keep up in their disciplines. But given the concerns suggested by the data regarding the ease of finding needed resources independently, it may be that some portion of our population are avoiding using Tripod or the library’s website and finding other ways to get to needed resources.

While the message about access to resources may be mixed, it was much less so regarding library as place. In 2012, as in 2005, this area received the lowest overall scores. In particular, students do not find the library to be inspirational, nor comfortable and inviting. Many respondents volunteered comments about their dissatisfaction with the design and sufficiency of the libraries (particularly McCabe) as a study space. A student wrote:
“I think the library needs more space for people to study together. In addition, McCabe is so dark and depressing that it makes it hard for me to want to study in my own college library. The windows are so small and the brick is so heavy and dark. How about some sky light or wide open windows?”
A faculty member offered the following perspective:
“The library’s biggest drawback right now is its physical space. I love working in academic libraries — except McCabe. McCabe has very few spaces with tables big enough to spread work out on, or enough natural light to keep one attentive in a quiet space. Its interior spaces don’t inspire or comfort. It doesn’t have the accoutrements of contemporary libraries that make them inviting — such as coffee! Honestly, on weekends, there is no coffee to be found *on campus*, never mind in the library.”

In fact, complaints about the study space, design, and lighting of McCabe were very frequent among our responses. There were 48 comments on study spaces, and none of them jumps out as completely positive. There were a further 40 comments that addressed general design of the libraries, most of which were also constructively critical. Many students asked for more tables, more individual study rooms, more numerous and more pleasant group study rooms, better lighting, better heating, and more windows. Musty smells in certain areas also made students suspect that the building is not watertight.

The LibQUAL+ study also asks respondents to self-report visits to the library and usage of the collection. Our average usage numbers have fallen since the survey was last administered seven years ago. In 2005 the average student respondent visited the library and used resources there on 42 days per quarter. In 2012 the average student respondent visited and used library resources on 35 days per quarter.  The number of faculty visits also fell during the same period from 42 to 35 days per quarter. The number of days per quarter on which the average undergraduate used resources via a library web page also fell. In 2005, that number was 27. In 2012 the average was 22. Faculty website use was at 54 days per quarter in 2005, and 44 days per quarter in 2012. There are many factors that could have contributed to this fall in average days of usage.

The most obvious possibility is that users are visiting the library less, because they can find scholarly resources online either through the library’s website or through general-purpose search engines. As one faculty member wrote:
“I almost never go into the library anymore, except to troubleshoot occasionally with a librarian or find a student I need to talk to… Thanks to the excellent electronic journal availability, I happily access almost everything I need from my laptop, wherever I am. This is brilliant!! Thank you!!”

We were also able to compare our average visits with the average from a peer institution, Williams College, for 2012. Of Swarthmore faculty, 45% visited the library daily or weekly. Of Williams faculty, 62% visited daily or weekly. For students, the numbers were close or equal, with 81% of Williams students and 79% of Swarthmore students visiting the library at least weekly.

Clearly, it is not enough that we are consistently courteous and deal with users in a caring fashion. We advance the College’s mission by providing information resources for teaching, learning, and research, and by supporting the discovery, evaluation, and use of these resources. If we are seen to lack in these critical dimensions, we are not meeting our central goals. Our ongoing analysis of responses to the LibQual survey helps us to understand which functions we are performing well, and where we need to direct our attention to improving our services. We are perpetually rebuilding and fine-tuning our systems, and working to tailor our collection to the needs of our scholarly community. As we address the feedback and suggestions from the survey, we will continue to support your scholarly information needs with our signature care and courtesy.

We will post additional analysis of the survey data on the library news site. Special thanks to Doug Willen and Robin Shores for their help in data analysis.

ID Question Text Key
Affect of Service
AS-1 Employees who instill confidence in users
AS-2 Giving users individual attention
AS-3 Employees who are consistently courteous
AS-4 Readiness to respond to users’ questions
AS-5 Employees who have the knowledge to answer user questions
AS-6 Employees who deal with users in a caring fashion
AS-7 Employees who understand the needs of their users
AS-8 Willingness to help users
AS-9 Dependability in handling users’ service problems
Information Control
IC-1 Making electronic resources accessible from my home or office
IC-2 A library Web site enabling me to locate information on my own
IC-3 The printed library materials I need for my work
IC-4 The electronic information resources I need
IC-5 Modern equipment that lets me easily access needed information
IC-6 Easy-to-use access tools that allow me to find things on my own
IC-7 Making information easily accessible for independent use
IC-8 Print and/or electronic journal collections I require for my work
Library as Place
LP-1 Library space that inspires study and learning
LP-2 Quiet space for individual activities
LP-3 A comfortable and inviting location
LP-4 A getaway for study, learning, or research
LP-5 Community space for group learning and group study

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