Graduate Students and the Library: A Survey of Research Practices and Library Use at the University of Notre Dame

Jessica Kayongo and Clarence Helm

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This study sought to determine the extent to which the Hesburgh Libraries of the University of Notre Dame meets the needs of its graduate students. It focused on how Notre Dame graduate students found research materials and how useful the Hesburgh Libraries’ collections were in their research and studies. Information gathered through this project indicates the level of usefulness of library resources and collections for one of its main constituents—graduate students. Graduate students’ contacts with the library, regardless of method, were almost always for their own research pursuits, not for faculty research. Graduate students at Notre Dame had more limited contacts with librarians and with library outreach research services. Most respondents (62.8 percent) preferred to use remote access to obtain copies of electronic items identified as relevant to their research. Across the board, however, graduate students were generally satisfied with the various library services. The survey showed that 44.6 percent and 41.1 percent of the respondents rated the library as “very useful” and “useful,” respectively, in their research. The data collected has provided a better understanding of graduate student research behavior, methods of library access, and levels of satisfaction with library resources, which will inform local practices and has the potential to do the same at other institutions of higher learning nationwide.

This study sought to determine the extent to which the Hesburgh Libraries of the University of Notre Dame (ND) meets the needs of its graduate students. It focused on how ND graduate students found research materials and how useful the Hesburgh Libraries’ collections were in their research and studies. The study looked at the following types of questions: What were the information-seeking strategies graduate students employed in research and writing? How did they identify and acquire relevant research materials? What was their level of satisfaction with the library’s collections?

Founded in 1842, ND is a private Catholic university located in Notre Dame, Indiana. The student population is largely an undergraduate one and primarily residential. In 2007 there were 8,451 undergraduate students and 3,362 graduate and professional students.1 The Graduate School was established in 1918 and offers thirty-two master’s and twenty-five doctoral degree programs.2 This study focused on the nonprofessional graduate students.

Literature Review

Locally created user surveys are common at academic libraries. They assist the administration in assessing collections and services and formulating policies affecting library acquisitions and use. Studies show that undergraduates, graduates, and faculty all use the library differently—undergraduates for a place to study, graduates both for a place to study and to make use of the collections and services, and faculty to make use of the collections and services.

Berger and Hines found that Duke University undergraduates were more interested in generalist types of materials (e.g., magazines and newspapers). Faculty more often used “esoteric research publications” (e.g., manuscript materials and conference proceedings).3 “Graduate students, truly in a transitional stage between these two groups, almost always responded in a way which placed them right between the experiences and desires of undergraduates and faculty.”4 Gardner and Eng found that undergraduates at the University of Southern California “demand access to information 24/7.”5 Further, these undergraduates “expect[ed] convenient, one-stop shopping when it [came] to research.”6 Studies by others in academic settings show that faculty were more interested in print books and journals and remote access than were graduate students.7

More recently, libraries have begun to use LibQUAL+ to assess user satisfaction via perception of service quality.8 LibQUAL+, a survey created by the Association of Research Libraries, measures the user’s perception of library service compared to the user’s expectations.9 Hesburgh Libraries used it twice (2002 and 2006) with very positive results in customer service and less favorable results for collections and building facilities. Levels of satisfaction differed between user groups.10

Method

This study used an online survey to assess graduate students’ relationship with the Hesburgh Libraries. The survey contains quantitative and qualitative questions, as well as options for additional comments. The twenty-question instrument included queries concerning graduate students’ research processes in general as well as their use of the library collections, website, services, and space. It also consisted of questions regarding their level of satisfaction with the various services and collections. The survey was anonymous, although basic demographic data was collected as part of the analysis. Readers of this article interested in seeing the survey can contact the authors for a copy. As mentioned previously, Hesburgh Libraries had used LibQUAL+ in 2002 and 2006. The results from those surveys indicated differences in levels of satisfaction between user groups. The decision to use a newly developed survey for this study was an acknowledgment that researchers cannot rely on one set of methods or one instrument when looking at users and thereby conclude that user needs are or are not being met. The more vantage points a user is viewed from, the more accurate the picture of that user.

The graduate student population (nonprofessional postbaccalaureates) at ND in spring 2008 was 1,861 students, with 64 percent of them pursuing a doctorate.11 It should be noted that the law and business students are not viewed as graduate students by the Graduate School, but are viewed as members of their respective colleges; moreover, these populations are served by their own libraries. For instance, the law library is separate from Hesburgh Libraries in funding and directorship. Response rates for Web surveys of students have been shown to be somewhat lower (21 percent response rate) than for mail surveys (31 percent response rate).12 It is generally acknowledged that incentives to survey respondents also increase the rate of return.13

For this study, the authors sent survey links in an e-mail to all graduate students, excluding law and business school students, via a local electronic discussion list. Two e-mail reminders were also sent. Additionally, students who completed the survey and were interested in winning one of three Apple 80GB iPods could provide their e-mail address (this data was separated from the rest of their survey answers by the software) for entry into a drawing. The survey remained open for two weeks. The authors collected the survey data electronically using open source survey software. The software was set up on the www.nd.edu domain so that students would know the survey was originating from a legitimate source. Unique tokens were generated and e-mailed to the students identified. In addition, security measures were taken to assure that only those receiving tokens would have access to the survey, a token could only be used once, and the anonymity of survey participants was preserved (tokens only identified whether or not an invitee had taken the survey—they did not link survey responses to survey takers). The ND Office of Research’s Institutional Review Board approved this method prior to the start of the project. The authors analyzed the data using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS).

Findings

As described above, a unique code allowing access to the survey was e-mailed to each of the 1,861 graduate students. Of those, 987 students responded, 920 of which completed the survey. So, 7.7 percent of people who started the survey decided not to complete and submit it. The total response rate was 53 percent (987/1,861), but the response rate for completed surveys was 49.4 percent (920/1,861). Ninety-two percent (920/987) of respondents completed the survey and were entered into the drawing for the three iPods.

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