User Groups in Academic Libraries

by Moya K. Mason


One fundamental aim of libraries and their staff has been to formulate a philosophy of intellectual freedom, and to provide access to all sources of information. Libraries attempt to meet the needs of a diverse and complex group of users who have a variety of special interests and demands that must be met. How do they measure up to this goal in daily operations, and transmit it into practice? Do they just pay lip service? This essay will look at the various user groups within academic libraries, their characteristics, and needs. In addition, it will endeavour to find out which client groups are not getting the kind of attention they need in terms of library service, and are falling through the cracks.

The Primary User Groups

Like other kinds of libraries, academic libraries develop mission statements. Since the mainstay of most academic institutions is the undergraduate population, it is the mission of university libraries to build and maintain a collection that will support and enhance the instructional needs of this group, and the various programs they are taught. The collections also seek to support the intellectual and research needs of faculty members, and the support staff, employed in the business side of university activities. However, libraries are dealing with budgetary concerns and storage space restrictions that make buying 'everything' impossible, and instead try to be very selective.

In some universities, faculty members carry out much of the collection development for their individual departments, while other libraries have a full time collections division, with specialists working in different subject areas. Faculty members can work with library staff and are sometimes consulted about suggestions for purchase. Conventionally they focus on their own interests, and expect quick service from the library staff (Boulanger 1991,105). They are considered heavy and frequent users of library resource and tend to relegate their search demands onto the librarians, often being disinterested in learning how to use the reference sources or yet another new database themselves (Boulanger 1991,106). Consequently, they take up the time of reference librarians.

Applicable journals are frequently on the list of faculty members' desired materials, but many libraries can no longer afford to purchase the increasing numbers of journals published today, and in fact, may not be able to afford subscriptions to the journals for which their own professors write. The currency and depth of collections used by faculty members will always be dependent upon how large a department is, and how important it is seen for attracting students, scholars, and research dollars. The multitude of undergraduate programs make collecting a demanding job for faculty members and librarians, who must keep the important faculties in mind, since the size and depth of their collections can help to promote the overall image and reputation of the institute (Dow 1995,103 104). What kinds of materials would be collected to fulfil the needs of the typical undergraduate?

First, undergraduates use the services of library staff to meet their research goals, and in particular, require a lot of attention from the reference librarians. Since many have no experience with online catalogues, the skills needed to access information from databases, nor the knowledge to find journal articles, librarians have to spend time showing them the basics of library use. Characteristically, these students are expected to write term papers that provide a general overview of a subject, rather than polished, in depth pieces of work. They tend to use materials that give a wide scope of topic areas, "including textbooks, survey literature, and popular press items" (Dow 1995,105). Often the items will be put on reserve by the professors, and used by several students, with the added frustration of having to do the same assignment as everyone else. Reference staff at some libraries are trying to work with faculty members to provide the students with a choice of different topics to reduce the pressures on resources and students (Boulanger 1991,106). The goal is to get new students comfortable with the research process through the help of library staff and faculty, so they can meet the university's academic requirements and further their education.

Many are mature students with families and part time jobs, who have returned to university to expand their employment opportunities in a very competitive workforce. As Mary E. Boulanger points out in Service Within and Without the Library, these students often attend night courses, and do require the assistance of reference librarians to get their work done (Boulanger 1991,107). Since these students are older and have a lot of practical experience in other areas of their lives, they may be quite reluctant to admit that they have no idea how or where to find the materials they need. They will probably be unable to use the OPACs without assistance, and have almost no knowledge of journal articles. If they eventually get the courage to ask for assistance, the librarians must try to provide them with the information they need in a caring manner. It could mean the difference between these students staying in school or dropping out in frustration.

Graduate students are also important members of the university, and can be attracted to an institution by the quality of subject collections (Dow 1995,103). This can easily be seen with the University of Western Ontario's Library and Information Science collection that attracts students from all over the world. As mentioned by Dow, Meringolo, and St. Clair in Academic Collections in a Changing Environment, graduate students are heavy users of library resources that cover the important core areas of their field, the influential works, and the theory of the discipline (Dow 1995,106). The currency and level of speciality of materials will depend upon the subject and nature of the graduate degree (Dow 1995,106). Graduate students are better equipped to find their way around the technological maze of today's libraries, but still require assistance from librarians.

The preceding discussion is based on the experiences of the majority of students in an academic setting, but certainly does not begin to present a picture of student library use. With the number of different library users being serviced by staff, it is not surprising that some are falling through the cracks and not getting their needs met as well as they should be. As Gina Macdonald and Elizabeth Sarkodie-Mensah have stated in ESL Students and American Libraries, more than sixty percent of the foreign students coming to universities in the United States are from countries that do not teach in English, nor is it a second language (Macdonald 1988,425). Of course, the problems are primarily due to cultural differences between the staff of universities and the foreign students coming into the system. If they have a chance to survive in their new surroundings, it will depend heavily on whether they can learn to function in the library setting (Liu 1993,26). Besides lacking a proficiency in English, there is an overall problem with confidence levels, and a hesitance in asking for help (Liu 1993,27).

Additional problems occur with the differences in book retrieval between North America libraries and European and Asian libraries, for example. In many libraries around the world, the students have no access to the book stacks, and have library staff bring them requested materials (Liu 1993.27). They are unused to the classification system and even the quantities of the books that are available for use and this can be quite daunting to some students (Macdonald 1988,426). When they come to North American universities, they are unfamiliar with the process (Liu 1993,28).

Other problems exist when library staff have no conception of how to communicate with foreign students, using inappropriate approaches such as 'baby talk' to explain library routines (Macdonald 1988,428). Many of these students are mature, and sometimes recognized professionals in their fields. They find it demeaning and confusing when they are spoken to as if children (Macdonald 1988,428). Learning new code switching techniques can help to alleviate some of the problems and bridge a cultural gap (Macdonald 1988,428). Librarians should not assume they have the same speed of comprehension visible in typical students, and be fooled by smiles and nods of the head, since these do not always represent understanding (Macdonald 1988,427). In many ways, these ESL students can fall between the cracks, and need conscientious staff to integrate them into the North American education system.

Physically-challenged students make up another group of students to be considered by library staff in their allocation of money, resources, and time. The reason that some of these students do not get any assistance is because they are unwilling to reveal their learing disabilities (Jones 1991,480). As Dorothy E. Jones writes in Ask So You Can Give: Reference/Research Service for the Disabled in an Academic Library:

Our responsibility as librarians is to make our library resources, whatever they are, as available to persons with disabilities as they are to persons without disabilities. There are alternative ways to make resources available, and talking with the individuals can help us choose the best ways possible in a given situation (Jones, 1991,479).

Many students have special needs, depending upon their disabilities. For students with visual impairments, they will need technological aids such as the Kurzweil Reading Machine, cassettes, tapes, talking books, and voice-activated terminals like the Datamedia FT80/30 (Goltz 1991,265). Additional support through volunteer readings is also critical for integration in academic facilities. In a study done by Gerald Jahoda and Elizabeth A. Johnson, data showed that while machinery like the Kurzweil were a requirement for libraries, there seems to be an indication that "many blind students already have a system for reading without the KRM and refuse to change" (Jahoda 1987, 100). Human contact, and the knowledge that an experienced librarian will be made available to help them with their research is above all things, their primary need. A study done by Dorothy E. Jones shows that 85 percent of the disabled people interviewed found library staff to be more important than any of the machinery available to them (Jones 1991,480). However, as Samuel T. Huang stresses, disabled students should not be treated like children, and should be encouraged to learn the skills required to use their university library themselves, rather than having others do it for them (Huang 1989,531). This approach can free up librarians' time, and build the confidence level of students (Huang 1989,531).Eileen Goltz points out that inadequate resources, including a shortage of Braille materials, large print books, and a lack of volunteers, are common problems (Goltz 1991,267). This may be representative of the small number of visually-impaired students attending university, and the resulting lack of pressure to spend dwindling funds for such small numbers (Goltz 1991,267).

For motor-impaired students, libraries need to be seen as accommodating places. Academic libraries can do some things to make resources more accessible for these students besides installing wheelchair ramps and bathroom stalls. The San Jose State University Library has replaced their self-service photocopying machines with models that can be used more easily by disabled students (Pontau 1991,5). They have also appointed a librarian whose responsibilities include acting as an advocate for the Disabled Students Association and as liaison with other library departments. There is a service policy in place that makes a page program available for retrieving books off high shelving; special workshops; and a written library policy that focuses on attitudinal barriers (Pontau 1991,7). The staff need to be aware of the problems and obstacles that these students face each day, and become more sensitive and accepting. Other libraries offer lowered counters, easily opened turnstiles, special elevators, special seating to accommodate wheel chairs, and the ability to retrieve materials by telephone (Goltz 1991,266 267). Needs assessments should be commonplace to discover the level of services that disabled students require (Huang 1989,534).

One segment of the disabled population is particularly vulnerable to not receiving the services they need in an academic library, and they are the deaf students. Deaf students do not have an obvious disability, and encounter many problems when dealing with people who can hear (Mularski 1987,477). They generally need extensive instruction in library skills since many hearing-impaired students have lower levels of knowledge in the area, and experience frustration when using some library tools that require language to be used easily (Mularski 1987,478). In Academic Library Service to Deaf Students: Survey and Recommendations, Carol Mularski asserts that very few librarians have the skills to meet the needs of deaf students, and improvements can be made that are low in cost (Mularski 1987,477). There should be a liaison agreement between library staff, and the disabled student services agency (Mularski 1987,481). This would provide some insight into the areas of library service they find lacking. Another essential requirement would be to have a number of the reference librarians learn how to finger spell, considered an easy medium to master (Mularski 1987,482). It would be very symbolic, and demonstrate to these students that they are considered important, while also giving them the means to communicate with people who can influence whether they will get an education or not. Voice amplification equipment, and staff members who know sign language are also desirable additions to integrate deaf students (Goltz 1991,266). Without some way of communicating with library staff, deaf students may choose not to use the library as much as their peers (Huang 1989,533).

Other User Groups

Many other groups use academic libraries on occasion, including business people doing database searches; visiting faculty; members of industries, checking government documents; and members of the community, researching a multitude of subjects that depend upon the collection parameters (Dow 1995,108). How much service these non-university user groups get depends upon the information and depth of interaction they require, and how busy the librarians are with students and faculty. Mary E. Boulanger writes that those decisions are often based on fiscal restraints, and many are referred to the local public library (Boulanger 1991, 110). Students from other institutions can be serviced at academic libraries, unless "sheer numbers keep us from serving our own students and faculty" (Boulanger 1991,110).

A large group of students from outside the university setting that commonly have special needs are the local high school students. Largely, this population is falling through the service cracks because academic libraries are so strapped for resources and staff time that proper attention to these students is an impossibility. With declining enrolments in schools, and the large cuts directed at education budgets, school resource centers have experienced a downturn (Miller 1987,36). Students also realize the speed with which they can do their research if they use an academic library in their community. In addition, with the growing stress placed on high school students to achieve and compete for shrinking scholarship pools, the pressure to produce better quality work requires them to seek other resources. As Rosalind Miller and Ralph Russell have pointed out in High School Students and the College Library: Problems and Possibilities:

Despite a growing awareness of the problem and a general uneasiness among librarians, state and national information policies have for the most part ignored the needs of the high school population (Miller 1987,36).

Academic librarians need to work with school principals and teachers to resolve the problems and to decide on how best to give high school students bibliographic instruction; how to teach the students to behave in an academic library; and how to best access the library catalogues and databases (Miller 1987,36). This is the next generation of students coming into the system, and if they can acquire basic library and research skills before embarking upon a university education, half the battle will be won.

Concluding Remarks

Some key strategies need to be put in place if libraries are serious about integrating special needs students into the academic system. First, library mission statements should include a policy on how library staff and reference librarians, in particular, will service user groups overall, but especially the student groups who are somehow disadvantaged (Huang 1989,534). Having these kinds of things in writing helps to direct how library staff should conduct themselves. Secondly, and concerning all user groups on some level, are the attitudinal barriers which can create unnecessary frustrations in university libraries (Dequin 1988,28). In a study of academic librarians, Dequin, Schilling, and Huang found that fifty percent of them have attitudes toward disabled persons that can be considered positive (Dequin 1988,31). This means that the other fifty percent need training to become more open-minded, less fearful, and more caring. To conclude, this writer will say that criticizing others is easy, as is making judgements on others' actions, but with all the work, responsibilities, demands, and pressures facing academic librarians, coupled with cutbacks, layoffs, and too many user groups vying for attention, it is easy to see how some people are falling through the cracks. What is more helpful is making these statistics available to librarians, and asking for constructive ways to make the educational experience of all groups a more enjoyable one.

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Reference List

Boulanger, Mary. 1991. Servicing the various publics at a state supported academic library. Reference Librarian no. 31, pp. 103-118.

Dequin, Henry C., Irene Schilling, and Samuel Huang. The attitudes of academic librarians toward disabled persons. Journal of Academic Librarianship 14(1): 28-31. March 1988.

Dow, Ronald, S. Meringlo and G. St. Clair. 1995. Academic collections in a changing environment, pp. 101-123 in Gerald McCabe and Ruth Person (eds.) Academic Libraries: Their Rationale and Role in America Higher Education.

Goltz, Eileen. 1991. The provision of services to students with special needs in Canadian academic libraries. Canadian Library Journal, Aug., p. 264-69.

Huang, Samuel T. 1989. Reference services for disabled individuals in academic libraries. Reference Librarian, vol. 25/26, pp. 527-539.

Jahoda, Gerald and Elizabeth A. Johnson. 1987. The use of the Kurzweil Reading Machine in academic libraries. Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 13, pp. 99-100.

Jones, Dorothy E. Ask so you can give reference/research service for the disabled in academic libraries. RQ 30 (Summer 1991): pp. 479-85.

Lui, Ziming. 1993. Difficulties and characteristics of students from developing countries in using American libraries. College & Research Libraries 54, 25-31.

Macdonald, Gina and Elizabeth Sarkodi Mensah. ESL students and American libraries. College & Research Libraries 49(5): 425-431. September 1988.

Miller, Rosalind and Ralph Russell. High school students and the college library: problems and possibilities. Southeastern Librarian 37:36-40. Summer 1987.

Mularski, Carol. Academic library services to deaf students: survey and recommendations. RQ 26 (Summer 1987): pp. 477-486.

Pontau, Donna. 1991. Elimination of handicapping barriers in academic libraries. Urban Academic Librarian 8(2): 3-12.

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