Perceptions gap in libraries: do we know what our users want?
The role of the “Listen in: Discussions from/in the field” column is to highlight interesting, exceptional, or provocative research published in LIS literature. This year we hope to emphasize a variety of research methods and the experiences of those often ignored in LIS literature.
Do we know what our users want? Most librarians would agree that sometimes, our users’ priorities can be surprising. However, understanding their needs and wants is crucial to improving services and choosing where to invest our limited budgets. In their article “How Well Do We Know Our Students? A Comparison of Students’ Priorities for Services and Librarians’ Perceptions of Those Priorities”, Young and Kelly (2018) address the perception gap between what the library users want, and what the librarians think the users want. The study was conducted at the University of Mississippi, a rural public institution with an undergraduate study body of about 19,000, but could be replicated in a variety of settings.
This article is a follow up to a study in which Kelly and Young (2017) used Q methodology to determine their users’ priorities. The Q method, rather than measuring traits as variables across populations, looks at participants as variables. Q methodology is particularly relevant when looking at patterns of subjectivity. This kind of methodology asks participants to sort items according to preferences and then determines groups of people according to their similar preferences. To learn more about Q methodology, check out this website, and/or this youtube video.
To identify student preferences, Kelly and Young (2017) created cards representing different library services which the students sorted according to their priorities, thus determining different groups. Because their findings surprised them, particularly regarding students’ opinions of technology, they wanted to uncover the perception gap between students’ priorities and the librarians’ perceptions of those priorities.
For this follow up study, Kelly and Young (2018) had two research questions.
- Find out the perception gap between students’ opinions and librarian perception regarding technological needs.
- Find out if the perception gaps regarding all services and spaces suggest the need for new programming at the library.
Kelly and Young (2018) asked the librarians to sort 60 cards on a grid, each representing a different library service that they offered, or could offer. Options were chosen from previous surveys, anecdotal conversations with students, and a random sampling of programs at other universities. Answering the question “How do you, as a librarian, believe undergraduate students prioritize the library’s services and spaces?”, librarians sorted the cards in three piles: most important, least important, and neutral. Then they placed the cards on the grid (see below), in the column that best represented their beliefs. They first placed the most important pile in the far right column (+6). Then, they placed the least important pile on the far left column (-6). Finally, they placed the remaining cards, from the neutral pile, in the center of the grid. The researchers recorded the participant’s answers on a paper grid using the number system.
Kelly and Young, 2018, p. 174
In order to determine the perception gaps from the grids, Kelly and Young (2018) used descriptive statistics. They determined the mean placement for each item using the numbered grid for students and librarians respectively. They then subtracted the students’ mean placement from the librarians’ mean placement to find the perception gap. A positive perception gap meant that the librarians ranked the item higher than the students, demonstrating that the librarians overestimated its priority among students. A negative perception gap meant that the librarians ranked the item lower, therefore underestimating its priority. A perception gap of -1 or 1 meant one column difference.
The 2018 study found that librarians generally overestimated students’ desire for additional computers, both desktops and laptops, and students were much less interested in 3D printing than librarians anticipated. In fact, students were mostly uninterested in technology items, except for calculators.
“…librarians generally overestimated students’ desire for additional computers, both desktops and laptops, and students were much less interested in 3D printing than librarians anticipated. In fact, students were mostly uninterested in technology items, except for calculators”
Regarding how these perception gaps might impact services, the researchers looked at the data three different ways: the biggest perception gaps overall, the perception gaps for the least important items for students, and the perception gaps for the most important items for students.
The biggest perception gaps were important to note. They indicate what areas the librarians have overlooked that the students find really important, as well as areas where librarians may want reconsider their efforts as they do not align with student priorities. Librarians were unaware of students’ desire for longer hours on Friday (-3.09 perception gap) and Saturday (-1.92), and study space near natural light (-2.38).
These gaps were particularly noteworthy as the students ranked them in the positive while librarians ranked them in the negative. Large perception gaps where both librarians and students ranked items in the positive are also noteworthy: librarians can focus their project development on areas where they support the project and students are also interested in it. For example, this study led to more robust collaboration with the writing center after seeing that librarians placed this priority at 0.29, and students placed it at 2.13.
Looking at small perception gaps helps to identify initiatives that could be implemented with little resistance from both stakeholders. Kelly and Young (2018) identified that students wanted more textbooks available for checkout, which aligned with the librarians’ perceptions (0.02 gap). Having these data to back up the claims of interest among users and buy in from staff can help sell project ideas to the administration. The University of Mississippi has made more textbooks available for check out based on these results.
Finally, identifying the perception gaps for items that students find least important can help redirect librarians’ work towards more productive endeavors. Kelly and Young (2018) found that students rated removing bookshelves in favor of more study space lower than librarians thought they would (-1.58 perception gap). This allows the librarians to focus their energy on other services.
“Though Q methodology is an interesting way to find trends across a population it may dismiss some important variable traits. Generalizing results makes it possible to dismiss the voices of students whose concerns do not show up frequently, but have very pressing needs.”
I found the Kelly and Young study was particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it allows librarians to make research driven decisions when implementing new programs. Anchoring practice in data is a good way to ensure that we are providing our users with services they are interested in. Second, their methods can be replicated across sectors: perceptions gaps between librarians and users is relevant in public and special libraries as much as in academic libraries. Kelly and Young (2018) note that “[at] times, however, librarians advocate for particular new services or spaces on behalf of students while forgetting to consult their actual constituents – the students themselves” (p. 173). Doing an exercise like this might help them discover some pressing needs from their users that they did not anticipate.
- This kind of research can help push forward items where the perception gap is small: if both the librarians and the users want it, the data supports the new initiative and might encourage buy in from higher up. It can also help us redirect our priorities if they don’t align with student needs.
- Though the results of this study are highly specific to their circumstances, and can’t be generalized to any institution, the methods can easily be reproduced to gain insight in a variety of contexts.
- Though Q methodology is an interesting way to find trends across a population it may dismiss some important variable traits. Generalizing results makes it possible to dismiss the voices of students whose concerns do not show up frequently, but have very pressing needs. For example, the students in this study who did require technology like computers were a minority. However, these students likely don’t have access to resources elsewhere and really need those computers to complete classwork. Additionally, it refutes the opinion of librarians who may be trying to advocate for under-resourced students, as the perception gap shows that students on average don’t want more computers. Therefore, this type of study should not be the only determinant in making decisions about new programs.
Keep the conversation going
- What other methodologies have you used to learn about your users, and incorporate your research into your practice?
- By focusing our perception gaps on the mean, without accounting for variable traits, are we accounting for and providing services for our most vulnerable users?
Young, B., & Kelly, S. (2018). How well do we know our students? a comparison of students’ priorities for services and librarians’ perceptions of those priorities. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(2), 173-178.
Kelly, S., & Young, B. (2017). Examining undergraduates’ library priorities through q methodology. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 43(3), 170-177.
About the author
Charlotte Brun is a Social Sciences Librarian at The Claremont Colleges Library, in Claremont, CA. She is passionate about information access, feminism in the library, and social justice. Hobbies include furry friends, plants, knitting and reading. Find her on twitter: @cha_cjb
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own