Why don’t people use university libraries?

I was recently asked by someone who manages a librarian newsletter, why I thought that library tools did not make it in the Top 100 Tools for Learning by Jane Hart. I immediately replied that Google Scholar made it to the list.

Then I had to think back. What about the last time I used a library tool (other than Google Scholar)? I can remember bad feelings like “why is the user interface so complicated?”. Then “why can’t I find what I am looking for?”. And “why do I have to choose which database I want to search in, can’t it just search them all?”. And “why do I have to go to another, different tool, to know who cited this paper and when?”.

Beyond these frustrations, I came up with some more specific reasons why library tools are not used:

  • They are not user-friendly. They were clearly designed with the “we shall train the users” motto in mind. Sorry. I do not want any training. I want you and your tools to get out of my way and let me find what I am looking for.
  • You may not consider this workshop paper that appeared on the Web two months ago a “worthwhile” reference, but I do.
  • It is ok for you to have to mail order a journal article and wait a week for it. Me? I want it now, on my screen, or else…
  • So, your search engine covers more prestigious journals than Google Scholar? It can count citations appearing in prestigious journals with absolute accuracy? Because, of course, you can only trust the “reliable sources”. Well, you are a librarian and you care about these things, but I am a researcher and I do not care as much as you do. I have a social network, I know who are the researchers you can absolutely trust, those who I should investigate further. In minutes or even seconds, I can tell about the quality of a paper. It is not a problem for me to trim out junk: the Web has trained me well to do it. Students should learn to do the same.

Update: This blog post was cited in the Fall 2007 newsletter of the Online Computer Library Center, Inc.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “Why don’t people use university libraries?”

  1. I’m currently working on earning a Master’s degree in IT. The current academic semester has introduced me to the library resources because of the research oriented courses that I am taking. My professors have done a fairly good job of introducing the students on how to use the library resources, but somehow I felt like things weren’t quite right. This posting explains it. It’s most frustrating when you are able to find the abstract to an article and somehow you can’t get the full article.

    (Really, why do I even want to see the abstract if you can’t provide the article? I’m a student, I don’t pay for articles, I pay for classes!)

    Now that I’ve thought about it, you’re exactly right. I completely agree with your thoughts on this.

  2. A typical scenario for me using my university library goes like this:

    1) Find the reference using Google, CiteSeer or something that isn’t the library search engine.

    2) If the full paper isn’t publicly available, access it through the university network to get the full paper.

    3) If it’s a physical reference, use the library search to get the call number for the next time I’m physically there.

    Really, the only reason I use the library is that they have access to many databases that are not open to the public. I only invoke their search when I already know what I’m looking for.

  3. I work for CISTI – Canada’s largest science library – and I have to admit that, until recently, I followed the algorithm outlined by Geoff in his comment. But I discovered that this is not an optimal strategy, even though it is “path of least resistance.” In fact, if you know how to search bibliographic indexes (a big IF, and, admittedly a big hurdle for most people) your recall rates are orders of magnitude better than Google Scholar and publisher sites.

    The good news is that libraries and librarians are acutely aware of the need to “lower barriers to entry”, provide Google-Scholar-like interfaces to full-text indexes, etc.

    If you want to have a look a few ideas that we’re experimenting with at CISTI, you can point your browser to Glen Newton’s Ungava search / browse interface to a limited collection (NRC Press content only at the moment):


    It includes some interesting ways of using tag-clouds, time-line views etc. Details on what its features are can be found on the CISTI Lab Wiki:


    It’s very much still “under construction” but it will, I hope, give you the warm fuzzies that things will improve at libraries in the future.

    I hope to have an experimental prototype article recommender system hooked up to Ungava sometime in the first quarter of 2008.

  4. Believe me, librarians know all of the points you addressed in your post and many are working to make things better.

    As for Google Scholar, I know we offer workshops to students on how to use Google better; many don’t know you can change ‘scholar preferences’ so that it does link to your library (saving that middle step of going from Google to the library website) for articles that aren’t freely accessible.

    Simply put, a lot of scholarly publications are still proprietary so we have to use those databases, at least until Open Access catches on in more fields.

    I totally agree though that for some areas, there isn’t as great a need for a physical library or librarian, but we’re not all computer scientists or in IT.

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