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Eastern Michigan University Library
A Comparison With Our Peer Institutions: Library Users Speak Up
The previous five LibQUAL survey articles, available on the library’s Web site, examine the quantitative data according to EMU user group and discipline. It is important to disseminate the survey results to inform the entire university community about those service areas where library users give us positive feedback as well as those areas where service quality falls below users’ expectations. We are currently analyzing the data and making comparisons with five peer institutions that also participated in LibQUAL. We need to not only determine which library services are of most and least importance to library users but to also identify patterns of satisfaction and dissatisfaction across user groups at all six libraries. Analyzing the LibQUAL data can be challenging because some questions are open to varying interpretations, making it difficult to draw any substantive conclusions (see the survey questions). For example, when patrons are asked if the library successfully makes electronic resources accessible from their homes or offices, do negative scores reflect more on the type of computer or connection being used offsite than on factors controllable by the library?
We did discover that all groups of EMU library users have higher minimum standards than do library users not only at our peer institutions but also at college and university libraries overall. In addition, our users have higher desired levels of service than do library users at four of our five peer institutions. Do our library users have significantly higher, but perhaps unrealistic, expectations because of Eastern’s proximity to major research universities? Is there any correlation between the dissatisfaction of our graduate students and whether they obtained a bachelor’s degree from one of those institutions? Likewise do faculty respondents fault our collections because of their familiarity with the extensive research collections of our neighbors? Do library users simply expect better service because of our state-of-the-art facility? Or does the new building’s automated retrieval system, which allows us to store many books instead of having the materials on open shelves, actually alienate some of our clientele who prefer to browse the collections? One of the advantages of participating in a national survey of library users is to obtain benchmark data enabling comparisons with peer institutions and to identify the best practices of those libraries where patrons are more satisfied with the quality of services. Looking at the minimum and desired service levels for LibQUAL’s 25 core questions, we see some interesting disparities between the expectations of our library users and those of patrons at our peer institutions. This article will examine survey results for undergraduates, graduate students and faculty; the other two user groups (university staff and library staff) were not surveyed at all of our peer institutions. Note: LibQUAL rules stipulate that while we can discuss other institutions’ survey results, we cannot publicly reveal the names of those institutions.
In each of the four dimensions or facets of library service, EMU undergraduates have substantially higher minimum and desired standards than do undergraduates at our peer institutions. When our undergraduates’ higher expectations are factored in with their lower perceptions of service quality, the result from their perspective is a library that either fails to meet or just slightly exceeds minimum standards in all but the Library as place dimension. Undergraduates at four of our peer institutions believe that their libraries surpass minimum standards on all 25 questions while undergraduates at the fifth institution report that library services fall below minimum expectations on only two questions in the Library as place dimension.
On the Access to information questions, Eastern’s undergraduates perceive that the library does not meet minimum standards in providing the print resources they require. In fact, based on their minimum and desired expectations, our undergraduates consider print and electronic book collections to be the most important services in this dimension. Our undergraduates and those at four of our peer institutions consider print and electronic journal holdings to be of lesser importance, in terms of their minimum standards, than not only the other services in this dimension but also in comparison to most of the services covered by the entire survey. Among our undergraduate classes, there are just slight variations in minimum expectations regarding journal collections, but desired expectations do start increasing by junior year. Another question in the Access to information dimension asks about convenient service hours. It is very interesting that despite all their LibQUAL and suggestion box comments about extending library hours, our undergraduates actually place less importance on this service than do undergraduates at the other five institutions. In fact, these undergraduates all report library hours to be their number one priority in this dimension, and undergraduates at four libraries rank it either first or second highest for desired service level among all 25 core questions. Note: The Halle Library is open 108.5 hours per week; two peer libraries are open 95.5 hours per week; one is open 99 hours per week; one is open 99.5 hours per week; and one is open 81 hours per week but has a 24 hour study area/computer lab.
EMU undergraduates are not satisfied with the quality of the library’s customer service; we fail to meet their minimum standards in four out of the nine questions in the Affect of service dimension. This is particularly troublesome considering that they have relatively low minimum expectations to start with. Undergraduates at all six institutions place the least importance, among all 25 core questions, on two questions in this dimension – how successful are library employees in instilling confidence in users and are patrons satisfied with the level of individual attention they receive. In this dimension, all undergraduates feel it is very important to have library employees who are consistently courteous and who have the knowledge to answer users’ questions.
Undergraduate students at five institutions, including EMU, give their libraries high marks in the Library as place dimension. The library that does fall slightly below its undergraduates’ minimum standards on two questions was in the planning process for a new building at the time of the survey. In this dimension, all undergraduates place the least importance on access to community space for group learning and group study. Instead, they prefer to use the library as a quiet space for individual activities which also explains their desire for extended hours. Undergraduates, particularly those living in dorms, should have 24 hour access on campus to a comfortable and secure place with computers and quiet study areas. However, it simply is not economically feasible to keep a large library building open such hours to accomplish this objective.
Our peer institutions exceed the minimum standards of their undergraduates on all six questions in the Personal control dimension; Eastern fails to meet its undergraduates’ minimum expectations on one question providing easy-to-use access tools that enable users to find information on their own. Our undergraduates express the highest minimum and desired expectations of the entire survey on the services in this dimension, placing the most importance on modern equipment in the library and remote access to electronic resources. Undergraduates at the other institutions feel that a library Web site that facilitates independent use of information is the most important service in this dimension. All undergraduate respondents consider convenient access to collections to be the least important aspect of Personal control. The LibQual survey also includes three questions concerning general satisfaction with library services and five questions dealing with information literacy outcomes. In contrast to our peer institutions, Eastern receives negative feedback from its undergraduates on the general satisfaction questions regarding how well they perceive they are being treated, support for their learning and research needs, and the overall quality of library service. The results from the information literacy questions reveal that undergraduates overall think the library is most successful in enabling them to be more efficient in their academic pursuits and least successful in helping them to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy information and in helping them to keep current with developments in their field(s) of interest. When examining undergraduate responses to all survey questions, it is useful to take into account how frequently they actually use library resources either on the premises or through the library’s Web page. 64% of EMU undergraduates come to the library to use its resources on a daily or weekly basis and 58% remotely access resources from the library’s Web site on a daily or weekly basis. These usage statistics compare very favorably to those of undergraduates at our peer institutions. Our undergraduates use the library and its resources more frequently than the undergraduates at three of our peer institutions use their libraries and our students’ usage equals that of undergraduates at the other two institutions.
The minimum and desired service quality expectations of Eastern’s graduate students are more in line with those of their peers than is the case with our undergraduates. However, EMU graduate students are very critical in their perceptions of library service quality in all but the Library as place dimension. Our graduate students report that the library fails to meet their minimum service standards in 17 out of the 25 core survey questions. Graduate students overall are not that difficult to please; one of our peers receives only one negative score, two institutions receive three, and another four. These libraries’ negative scores are primarily in the Access to information dimension. Although graduate students at the fifth institution report that their library fails to meet minimum standards on 21 questions, their worst assessments of library service quality are in the Library as place dimension. Such poor evaluations in this area could be negatively impacting their perceptions in the other dimensions.
It is difficult for libraries to meet graduates students’ needs in the Access to information dimension. As mentioned above, this is the one dimension where four of our peer institutions fail to meet their graduate students’ minimum expectations in some areas. Graduate students at the fifth institution report that their minimum standards are unmet on all five questions. Eastern’s graduate students give the library failing marks on all questions except convenient service hours. Taking into account both minimum and desired levels of service, graduate students at all six institutions place the most importance on electronic information resources. Graduate students overall report low minimum standards for convenient service hours and for journal collections. However, because of poor opinions of their libraries’ print and electronic journal holdings, graduate students report sizeable negative gaps not only between their perceptions and desired expectations but also between their perceptions and minimum expectations.
Our graduate students are extremely dissatisfied with the library’s customer service quality; in the Affect of service dimension, the library fails to meet their minimum standards on seven of the nine questions. Graduate students at all but one of our peer institutions report that customer service at their libraries exceeds their minimum expectations by wide margins on all questions. As is also the case with our undergraduates, our graduate students actually have very low minimum standards in this area so it is disturbing that they perceive such disparity in the service they feel we are providing compared to both their minimum and desired levels of service. At all six institutions, graduate students, like undergraduates, feel that the abilities of library staff to instill confidence and to provide individual attention are the least important aspects of customer service. Our graduate students give these two questions their lowest minimum and desired expectations of all 25 survey questions and these are the only two questions in this dimension where they perceive that we slightly exceed their minimum standards. There is some variation in which aspects of customer service are most important to graduate students overall. Our students and those at two of our peer institutions give first priority to library employees having the knowledge to answer questions and second to employees who are consistently courteous. Besides having knowledgeable library employees, graduate students at the other three institutions also feel that willingness to help users is very important. In terms of their perceptions falling short of minimum and desired expectations, our graduate students are most dissatisfied with library employees’ dependability in handling users’ service problems, readiness to respond to questions, and knowledgeableness to answer questions.
Graduate students at five institutions, including Eastern, give their libraries high marks in the Library as place dimension. Graduate students at all six libraries place the least importance on access to community space for group learning and group study; in fact, this ranks as the least important service of the entire survey for graduate students at four of the libraries. In this dimension, all graduate students place the most importance on the library functioning as a getaway for study, learning and research.
Graduate students believe that the services covered by the six questions in the Personal control dimension are more important than those covered in the other dimensions. Unfortunately, our graduate students report that the library fails to meet acceptable standards on all six questions. Making electronic resources accessible from home or office is the first priority for graduate students at four institutions, including Eastern. In addition to our library, three others also fail to meet their graduate students’ minimum expectations for this service. A library Web site that enables students to find information on their own is the top priority of graduate students at the other two libraries and is ranked second by graduate students at three institutions. Our graduate students rank this as their third priority, just behind modern library equipment that allows them to easily access needed information. Based on the disparities between their perceptions and expectations, the two most significant problem areas in this dimension for our graduate students are the lack of easy-to-use access tools allowing them to find things on their own and the difficulty of accessing electronic resources off library premises.
Our graduate students’ responses to the three general satisfaction questions and the four questions dealing with information literacy outcomes definitely reinforce the conclusion that these students are displeased with library instruction, services and support. Eastern receives lower scores from its graduate students than four peer institutions receive from their students. The critical opinions of our graduate students may be negatively affecting their usage of the library and its resources. 47% of our graduate students come to the library to use its resources on a daily or weekly basis which is 7% less than the average at our peer institutions. 67% of our graduate students remotely access resources from the library’s Web site on a daily or weekly basis which is 9% less than the average at our peer institutions.
Faculty respondents at all six institutions are the most dissatisfied with the services covered by the questions in the Access to information dimension. Our library fails to perform up to faculty’s minimum standards on four of the five questions. In comparison, two libraries received negative scores on two questions, two libraries received negative scores on three questions, and the sixth fails to meet minimum standards on all the questions. In this dimension, faculty respondents overall report the greatest level of satisfaction with convenient library hours, the result of low minimum standards combined with relatively high perceptions of current service quality. Faculty library users, like undergraduates and graduate students, have very low minimum expectations for print and electronic journal collections. Unfortunately their perceptions of journal collection quality fall substantially below both their minimum and desired standards. Consequently, faculty considers journal collections to be the most problematic service area in this dimension. Another source of dissatisfaction for faculty is print resources. Looking at the six institutions, there is interesting divergence in how faculty ranks the importance of Access to information services. EMU faculty feels that electronic resources are the most critical in terms of both minimum and desired expectations. Faculty respondents at only one of our peer institutions report similar opinions. Faculty at three institutions thinks timely document delivery/interlibrary loan is the most important. (In fact, one institution’s faculty considers this to be the most important service covered by the survey.) Faculty library users at the remaining institution report that print collections are their top priority.
Faculty respondents at four institutions are very pleased with customer service quality; three libraries exceed minimum expectations on all nine questions in the Affect of service dimension and another receives only one negative score. Our library fails to meet its faculty’s minimum standards on three questions and the sixth library receives four negative scores. Overall the least important aspects of customer service for faculty are the ability of library staff to instill confidence and to provide individual attention. These are also the aspects that faculty is the most satisfied with. Looking at minimum and desired expectations, faculty places a premium on the following library staff attributes (in order of importance): knowledge to answer users’ questions, readiness to respond to questions, courteousness, and dependability in handling service problems. It is this last service that is the greatest source of dissatisfaction for faculty at three institutions, including Eastern.
As might be expected considering the scores given by undergraduates and graduate students, faculty respondents at five institutions give very high ratings in the Library as place dimension. Our faculty even reports that the library comes close to meeting its desired expectations. As is also the case with undergraduates and graduate students, faculty considers the provision of community space for group activities to be the least important aspect of Library as place. Faculty does place a premium on library environments that are comfortable and inviting and that are conducive to study, learning and research. The only faculty to give its library all negative scores in this dimension is the most dissatisfied with these two building characteristics.
In the Personal control dimension, only one library exceeds the minimum expectations of its faculty on all six questions. Our library fails to meet the minimum expectations of faculty on five questions and only barely exceeds acceptable standards on the question regarding modern equipment in the library. However, we are not alone in experiencing such dissatisfaction; one library also receives negative scores on the same five questions and another receives negative scores on all six questions. The two remaining libraries fail to surpass minimum standards on one question making electronic resources available from home or office. This service is judged by faculty at four institutions, including Eastern, to be the most important not only in this dimension but also in the entire survey. Next in importance for these four groups of faculty is a library Web site that enables users to access information on their own. Faculty respondents at the remaining institutions consider a top quality library Web site to be the most important aspect of Personal control. In terms of minimum standards, the least important service for faculty is convenient access to library collections; interestingly, the desired level of service here is relatively high. Eastern’s faculty actually reports that the library falls below its minimum standards in providing convenient access to collections (perhaps an issue with the automated retrieval system). Faculty overall is the most satisfied by modern library equipment that allows users to easily access information. At four institutions, faculty expresses the greatest degree of dissatisfaction with remote access to electronic resources. Although faculty respondents at the other two institutions, including Eastern, are also unhappy with this service, they perceive the absence or inadequacies of easy-to-use access tools to be more problematic.
In terms of the general library satisfaction questions, Eastern’s faculty is less satisfied with the treatment and support and with the overall quality of service it receives than faculty at three of our peer institutions. This same ranking also holds true for the five information literacy outcomes questions. Faculty respondents at all six institutions are the most satisfied with their libraries’ ability to help them be more efficient in their academic pursuits and are the least satisfied with their libraries’ ability to help them distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy information. 33% of our faculty respondents come to the library to use its resources on a daily or weekly basis which is 9% less than the average at our peer institutions. 66% of our faculty accesses resources through the library’s Web site on a daily or weekly basis which is about the average for faculty at our peer institutions.
It is a useful exercise to identify commonalities among library users at different institutions in terms of which services are considered to be of lesser and greater importance. If library users overall express significantly lower minimum and desired expectations for particular library services, it is not cost effective to expend scarce resources in those areas (unless, of course, users’ perceptions fall below acceptable standards). For example, although some group study rooms are essential, it is apparent that all user groups prefer more individual and quiet study areas. Extending service hours, a low user priority overall and a very costly prospect, may also be far less beneficial than improving remote access to library resources, which is a top priority across all user groups. If patrons universally report that certain services are very important to them, libraries need to focus on these areas, making sure that perceptions of service quality exceed at the very least the minimum expectations of users. While this is the case at four of our peer institutions, our library faces some daunting challenges. Substantial numbers of our users report that the quality of many library services is less than adequate. While the significance of small negative gaps between users’ perceptions and minimum expectations can undoubtedly be debated, that is really not the issue here. What is troublesome is not the size of the gap but that there is any gap at all. Whenever a survey respondent perceives that the quality of a library service does not meet his or her minimum standards, we need to find out why and take corrective action.
We can also identify commonalities in satisfaction and dissatisfaction with library services. Are there some services that library users seem to be universally dissatisfied with and may therefore be the most difficult to improve? This is especially true in the Access to information dimension which focuses on collections. With dwindling budgets and escalating costs, libraries are rapidly losing ground in equitably allocating funds between journal and monograph collections and between print and electronic resources. Because we can only purchase a small fraction of the materials our users would like, we must expand and market our resource sharing capabilities. In this respect, the responses to the survey question about interlibrary loan/document delivery are enlightening; at three institutions, ILL/DD is presumably a high profile service because of its priority ranking by faculty library users. On the other hand, many of Eastern’s survey respondents did not even answer the question, which probably indicates that our library users are not well informed about and therefore not utilizing this valuable service.
In contrast to the Access to information services, it is not difficult for libraries to satisfy users’ expectations in the Library as place dimension. If a library building is relatively appealing and does not have any serious deficiencies, patrons do not take much notice of physical and environmental factors. If, however, a library building evokes negative reactions, it can have a detrimental impact on users’ perceptions of service quality which extends beyond dissatisfaction with the building itself.
Where our library can definitely benefit from the best practices of peer institutions is in customer service quality. It is the area most under a library’s control and therefore the most amenable to improvement. We need to learn about staff training and development programs from those libraries that are excelling in areas where we are experiencing the most problems – staff knowledgeableness, courteousness and dependability.
The services covered by the Personal control dimension are the most challenging to fulfill in terms of accommodating the preferences of all library users. Personal control by its name implies that library users prefer to function independently whether they are using materials onsite or are accessing resources remotely. This is probably the case for many patrons, and so for them, libraries need to make the process of identifying, locating and accessing resources as intuitive as possible. Judging from survey respondents at all six institutions, dependable remote access to electronic resources is absolutely essential as is a well designed and user friendly Web site that can serve as the gateway to these resources. Some of our users, however, prefer to have library staff always available to help them locate and access information. We learn from survey comments that they are not interested in mastering the intricacies of electronic databases, especially if their use of such resources is infrequent, and they do not make use of print and online finding aids. We cannot assume that personal control is the goal of all library users; instead, we must work to identify and meet the needs of patrons who run the gamut in their comfort level.
With universities now stressing the importance of learner centered education, academic libraries can no longer be content with a supporting role in this mission but must themselves demonstrate the ability to directly impact student learning outcomes. LibQUAL’s information literacy outcome questions, albeit somewhat simplistic, do seek feedback from library users on this issue. Although our library’s scores are disappointing, the scores of our peer institutions are not particularly impressive, generally ranging from an average of 5 to 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 9 (with nine being the most satisfactory). All six libraries are judged to have the least success in teaching their users how to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy information. This may be an inevitable consequence of our users frequently bypassing library services and resources in favor of using Internet search engines to obtain information. Survey respondents in all user groups turn to such sources with much greater frequency than they visit the library or use its resources. According to the survey, 60% of respondents, on average, use non-library gateways on a daily basis for their information needs. Although directly searching the Internet is perfectly valid for some types of information, it should not be the principal interface for academic library users and it represents a competition that we cannot afford to lose. Libraries absolutely must work together to implement resource sharing on a large scale (i.e. Michigan eLibrary Project) and to make access to all their resources as easy and seamless as possible. Maybe then we can gain the reputation as one stop resource shops for our university communities.
As was mentioned in the previous articles, we want to flesh out our LibQUAL data to obtain more usable information about patron needs. Focus groups and surveys targeted to our various constituencies will enable the library to address the specific needs and concerns of each user group. Because graduate students are the most dissatisfied, we are starting the process with them. However, your feedback about library services and resources is always welcome, and we also want to hear from those of you, who for whatever reason do not use our facilities and collections. Please make use of our suggestion forms (inhouse and online) or let us know if you would like to participate in an upcoming focus group.