But it's all free on the internet!

Ruth Graham of the University of Worcester in the UK on how she and her colleagues convince students and academic staff to use the online library.

Persuading students and academic staff away from Google Scholar and towards your university online library is hard. There are several perfectly valid reasons why we as librarians recommend our discovery searches and specialised databases. Only a certain amount of scholarly content is free online, and the library spends a lot of money making eresources available. We also try to manage expectations around the overwhelming experience of navigating our library websites and publisher platforms. But video tutorials and paper handouts can only do so much to overcome poor interfaces, and users aren’t convinced. Their reasons are challenging to the point of being difficult to hear, but important to understand so that academic libraries can effectively respond

The University of Borås in Sweden has investigated the scope of free resources, looking at 6,998 references in 39 doctoral theses in various fields. They found that 57% of all referenced resources were freely available or were accessed without library support. Their study is the latest of several showing that a significant chunk of post-grad users will find scholarly content outside of the library.

Of course, there will always be institutional and subject variations, and it is important to find out how your users find information. At the University of Worcester, undergraduates and taught post-grads use Google to get background information, but show a strong preference for our discovery layer over Google Scholar for citable sources. Post-grads may be early adopters of a wider shift away from university online libraries, or their higher digital literacy skills may make them less patient with our interfaces. However, the same complaints were echoed by all users: irrelevant results, broken links, poor user interfaces. There is no getting away from it - the disparity between the experience of library systems and other web tools is incredibly frustrating and doesn’t meet expectations.

Scrutinising the benefits of popular scholarly tools identifies what is lacking from our online libraries. A personalised, intuitive experience that offers more control over information finding workflows. Tools developed by researchers, for researchers, get at relevant information effectively, often using technology not available in library systems. Sharing and networking features boost researcher profiles

How can academic libraries compete? First by understanding the underlying disruptive pattern. Convenience, in this case - ease of access - overrides content quality, with quality improving over time. Think digital cameras over film, and camera phones over digital cameras. If the changes seen at the University of Borås and others are indicative of a disruptive shift, major disruptive eresource products would include Google Scholar and Mendeley. To counter this trend, there are certain steps that academic libraries can take.

Build trust with users

Make purchasing and design decisions to reduce broken links. Put service messages at point of need, such as scheduled maintenance notices on the library homepage.

Use targeted messaging

Adapting your messaging and delivery method ensures that the library’s role is recognised and understood. For a recent reading lists campaign aimed at improving engagement by students, we delivered posters, bookmarks tucked into reservations, an online quiz and social media messaging.  

Gather analytics for actionable insight

Continuously gathering analytics gives insight into your practices, and take care to choose the most appropriate measure for each process. It is not enough to assess an eresource in isolation, such as monthly usage and cost per use figures. Wider context is needed; look at user journeys, qualitative feedback and searching behaviour by subject.

Visualise analytics for powerful impact

Visualisations are important for demonstrating value and illuminating connections between services and outcomes. Illustrating data evidences how the library is innovating as well as supporting teaching, learning and research.

Craft an intuitive user experience

More than just addressing feedback, focussing on the user experience gives you the chance to delight your users. Your online services should provide a visually appealing, seamless and intuitive experience that’s unique to your institution.

Picture the future

The pace of change for scholarly content is exponential, and there are multiple challenges to academic libraries’ traditional roles, many of which directly affect eresource provision. As free access increases, academic libraries will move from collection management to service delivery. Strategic, user-led service design is needed to make the case for our ongoing relevance. Students need support from librarians, as well as their tutors, to navigate the increasingly complex worlds of digital information.

This article is based on a presentation given at Internet Librarian International 2017.

Ruth Graham is on a mission to improve the user experience of academic libraries. Trained in 3D and graphic design, Ruth offers a unique take on online library interfaces. She is currently employed by the University of Worcester as an Eresources and Licensing Coordinator.

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash