This article is based on the authors’ presentation at the 2018 Charleston Library Conference, “A Dream of Spring: Academic Libraries’ Services to Graduate Students.”
Although universities are working to prioritize graduate student recruitment and retention rates, research indicates that graduate students’ information needs are underserved in academic libraries (Gibbs et al., 2012). In large part, this is a numbers game: In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recorded the number of undergraduate students in the U.S. at 17 million, compared with 3 million graduate students, so it is not hard to understand why universities as a whole prioritize undergraduate students’ needs (Kena et al., 2016, pg. 28). Not only are graduate students fewer in number, they are a heterogeneous group, differing from each other by age, stage of life, type of degree, discipline, and other factors. Some graduate students are enrolling directly from an undergraduate degree or master’s degree, while others are returning to school and perhaps having difficulty balancing study, work and life responsibilities. Furthermore, the needs of master’s students differ from those of doctoral students, and professional program students’ needs differ from students enrolled in more academic programs (Covert-Vail & Collard, 2012). Unfortunately, graduate students are often viewed as a monolith rather than an assemblage of smaller sub-groups. In fact, graduate students are a diverse group calling for tailored library services that meet their specific information needs.
Information literacy skills gap and how libraries fit in
At the same time that they are enrolled as students, graduate students may also take on roles important in the academic exercise, including researcher, writer or teacher—and sometimes several of these simultaneously. However, support for these responsibilities is not always provided by their departments or faculty mentors, due to assumptions of graduate students’ skill sets or lack of time to teach these skills (Covert-Vail & Collard, 2012; Rempel, 2010). Conway (2011) looked at undergraduate and graduate students’ information literacy skills and found significant gaps. For example, 59 percent of graduate students were unable to identify the best method for article searching, and overall, graduate students scored only slightly higher than undergraduate students on Conway’s information literacy skills test. Cover-Vail and Collard (2012) found that “academic institutions have unrealistically high expectations about incoming students’ research and technology-related skill levels” (pg. 8) and instruction skills; graduate students’ lack of formal training in these areas can lead them to suffer anxiety (Pelton, 2013). By understanding that these knowledge gaps exist, libraries can become partners in graduate student success by providing services that address these needs. How often, though, are academic libraries reaching out to their graduate students to offer and inform them about services?
What we did
The purpose of our study was to explore Association of Research Libraries (ARL) members’ offerings for graduate students. To do this, we randomly selected 25 ARL libraries and reviewed their websites for several elements of specific interest to graduate students. We chose to review websites because many users consider them to be a “virtual branch” of the library, and they are often the first place students look for information and services. Choosing websites also gave us the opportunity to evaluate the information and services through the eyes of a student.
We created a website rubric based on our own prior research as well as literature related to graduate students’ needs and library use. We used the rubric to review the libraries’ websites for these nine components:
- The presence of a graduate student library guide
- Notice of physical space in the library specifically for graduate students
- A librarian contact to provide services for graduate students
- Support for graduate students’ publishing
- Support for graduate students’ writing (general)
- Support for thesis and dissertation writing
- Support for graduate students’ teaching
- Support for graduate students’ research
- Other (e.g., workshops)
We also conducted a heuristics (guidelines-based) evaluation of each library website. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen (1995) has identified 10 general principles for interaction design (heuristics), but for the purposes of our study, we focused on five principles:
- Match between system and the real world, or how well the language and navigation reflect what users might do or need “offline”
- User control and freedom, or the adaptability and customizability of the site to users’ individual needs
- Consistency and standards, or the extent to which elements and themes are presented consistently throughout the site
- Recognition rather than recall, or the visual cues provided to guide users through the site rather than requiring them to rely on memory
- Aesthetic and minimalist design, or the absence of busyness and unnecessary visual elements
What we found
The findings revealed that libraries are excelling in certain areas, including:
- Providing designated spaces for graduate students (e.g., research commons, carrels, or lockers)
- Supporting theses/dissertations needs (e.g., how to upload and format)
- Offering specific graduate student workshops (e.g., citation management)
There are also areas where libraries can improve. Only six websites provided a link to the graduate student library guide from the home page, and only six offered writing workshops or support specifically for graduate students. Several sites linked to the university writing center; however, the writing center only targeted undergraduate student needs.
Of the 25 library websites, nine met all five heuristics. The biggest discrepancy was in the first heuristic, “Match Between System and the Real World,” meaning that the system should speak the users’ language and be free of jargon.
What did we conclude?
It is clear that academic libraries are making an effort to reach their graduate student population. Only three of the 25 ARL libraries we reviewed did not have a graduate student library guide, and almost all of the websites offered specific research, teaching, and/or thesis and dissertation preparation help for graduate students. However, there was little evidence that libraries are offering or connecting graduate students with support for their writing needs. A 2010 study conducted by Rempel found graduate students had difficulties with literature reviews due to lack of instruction. This is a perfect example of how libraries could address a knowledge gap and contribute to graduate student success.
As more libraries focus on the usability of their websites, we felt a heuristics evaluation was a necessary component of our study. Even though only nine websites passed all five usability heuristics, more than half met four out of the five. However, there is room for improvement in regard to the first heuristic, “Match Between System and the Real World.” Thirteen of the 25 libraries did not meet this heuristic, primarily because they used system-oriented terms or jargon. When describing the benefits of using plain language, Hoa Loranger said, “Not only is complex language hard to understand, but it also lends the copy a pretentious, cringeworthy tone of voice, that can sound patronizing and can alienate your audience” (paragraph 17). When users encounter jargon, they can feel unsure and excluded, and this drives them to other, more accessible sources. For this reason, it is imperative that information professionals evaluate the services we provide to ensure they are accessible to our users. Unless we do this, we will not know what our users truly need.
What we recommend
So, what is a fast, efficient way to get feedback and enable you to make a difference for your university’s users? First, we recommend conducting a website usability study. In addition to generating valuable feedback about user needs and behaviors, a usability study demonstrates to users that we care about helping them use the library’s valuable resources. It is also less resource-intensive than many assume! A usability study does not require fancy equipment, and according to usability guru Jakob Nielsen, you need only five participants to generate findings you can use to make improvements. The goal of a usability study is to make improvements, not just document the issues. Five participants will be able to find 85 percent of the usability problems (2000). Second, consider doing other types of studies, such as a space assessment. Assessment allows libraries to gather evidence they can use to more directly meet users’ needs and demonstrate the library’s value to the university and community. Libraries are in the people business, and we can use assessment to improve the user experience.
Conway, K. (2011). How Prepared are Students for Postgraduate Study? A Comparison of the Information Literacy Skills of Commencing Undergraduate and Postgraduate Information Studies Students at Curtin University. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 42(2), 121-135.
Covert-Vail L., Collard, S. (2012). “New Roles for New Times: Research Library Services for Graduate Students” (report, Washington, D.C.: Association for Research Libraries, 2012), 9, available online at www.arl.org/storage/documents/publications/nrnt-grad-roles-20dec12.pdf
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