Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; 
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia;
Steven Bell
, Philadelphia University; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University
Vol. 27, No. 1 September 2006

What’s Your Library Brand?

Using OCLC’s Perceptions Report to Increase Student Awareness of Library Services and Resources

by Steven J. Bell


I  never would have considered providing my provost with a copy of OCLC’s original “Perceptions of Library and Information Resources” report first released in December 2005. OCLC is the world’s largest network of library organizations, and promotes the sharing of resources among libraries. Its Perceptions Report resulted from an international survey to learn more about how people think about and use libraries. The report seeks to understand what the library means to the average person in an Internet Age. Several hundred pages long and largely consisting of information about the general public, it would hardly seem the type of reading of interest to an academic administrator. While this original report contains valuable information about college students and their use of academic libraries, that content was integrated into the report and presented challenges to those desiring to read and interpret the findings related to students.

Recently OCLC did academic librarians and their administrators a huge favor. By extracting the college students’ responses to the survey, OCLC has produced an excellent document that reflects what our students think of the library, how they use it, and what they think the library should do to provide better services. This new report, “College Students Perceptions of Library and Information Services” should be on the desk of academic administrators and the subject of discussion and debate between them and their library directors. This issue provides highlights from and reactions to the report, and identifies some of the major findings that librarians, administrators and faculty can use to develop better strategies for encouraging students to effectively use the college library.

What’s The Good News?

When the original Perceptions report was first issued many librarians responded with a similar reaction. The report was perceived as a “good news – bad news” proposition. The bad news, confirmed for all sectors of librarianship, was that the general public and college students use neither the physical or virtual online library at anywhere near the desired levels. While 87percent of college students report having visited a college library in person, just less than 50 percent make daily or weekly visits; the majority visit anywhere from several times a year to never. While one would expect greater use of the library’s online resources only 57 percent of college students surveyed visited the library’s website. (pgs 1-2, 1-3) Other indicators such as frequency of use and anticipated future use likewise disappointed academic librarians with low usage numbers.

So what’s the good news? Compared to all other non-academic respondents to the survey, in virtually all categories of library and resource usage, college students clearly use the library more regularly and value their library more highly. Although the report draws no conclusions about this, academic librarians could interpret this to suggest that their years of advocating for and providing library user education programs may be yielding some positive results. While indicators showing college students use the academic library and its resources at higher levels than the general public are encouraging, the low numbers indicate that there is more work to do. As a number of the indicators suggest, one way to increase student awareness is through more faculty collaboration with academic librarians.

Getting Specific about Internet Use

The great value of this Perceptions report is that it provides a significant advancement over previous studies about college students and Internet usage and information-seeking behaviors. Past surveys from the Pew Foundation series on Americans’ use of the Internet and other polling organizations’ studies have asked students about their use of the Internet for study and research. The results revealed that students make heavy use of the Internet for these activities, but these surveys never differentiated the Internet and the virtual library. This left many academic librarians in the dark about whether students perceived use of the Internet to include using the library’s resources accessed via the Internet. This new report provides much greater detail by asking students about their familiarity with and use of resources such as the library web site, electronic magazines and journals, and online databases. There can be no confusing general Internet use with the use of library resources. Additionally, the report makes clear the differences in student use of Internet search engines versus the library’s electronic resources.

Also of great value are the many comparisons between college students and “other respondents.” While it is rewarding to see that college students use the library web site at two times the rate of other respondents or that their use of electronic journals and databases is far heavier, the academic community should take pause before patting itself on the back. Keeping in mind that college students are required constantly to write research papers and complete assignments that demand other types of research, it’s of little surprise that their use of libraries is going to exceed general public levels of use. Our reality check is those indicators that clearly show college students still use Internet search engines more frequently and prior to the library’s electronic resources, that too many report unfamiliarity with critical library resources, and that they seek out others for referrals and advice on where to find information before or in lieu of consulting their academic librarians. These are areas where real measures of success are yet to be achieved.

Spheres of Influence

Both academic librarians and their administrative colleagues would no doubt prefer to see college students reporting greater awareness about and use of the library’s physical and virtual resources that represent a significant institutional investment in students’ academic success. The Perceptions Report yields valuable information about who does influence student resource choices, and librarians are nowhere near the top of the list. To increase both awareness and usage it is critical to get the message about the library’s resources out to students. The report suggests this could best be accomplished through faculty and students themselves.

When asked how they learn about electronic information the top rated source was friends, closely followed by teachers in the number three spot. (p.1-9) The librarian was cited as a learning source by only 30 percent of college students compared to more than 50 percent for friends and faculty. Since librarians already practice significant promotion and use instructional opportunities to create student awareness, these findings suggest that new paths must be taken. First, faculty must be sought out to do more than just invite librarians into their classrooms. Our institutions must invest more time in faculty development so that they acquire the knowledge that will allow them to more directly teach students what library resources to use, how to use them, and when they are more appropriate for research than Internet search engines. Faculty influence on students cannot be underestimated. When students were asked who they most trust when seeking recommendations for reliable sources of information or to validate the worthiness of resources a “teacher/professor” is their first choice. (pgs 3-10, 3-11)

Nor can friends be overlooked. Traditional marketing and promotion methods (e.g., newsletters, posters, etc.) must be supplemented or replaced with more savvy word-of-mouth techniques. If students are citing friends as their number one source for learning about electronic information sources, then librarians and their administrative colleagues must find ways to get students talking about the library’s online resources. Consider how Google became the dominant search engine. The founders did little if any advertising. Instead they relied on their users to tell their friends to use Google instead of its competitors and we know how that story turned out.

This means giving students a reason to talk to their friends about the library. That may require heavier promotion of student successes, rewarding students for outstanding library-based research, or working with colleagues in student life or residence services to encourage student leaders to tell peers about the library. Clearly, librarians, faculty and academic administrators must work together if the goal is to create greater student awareness about library resources.

Rethinking the College Library’s Brand

A brand image is the perception of a brand in the minds of persons, and it identifies the thoughts, feelings and expectations community members associate with your institution or library. While the Perceptions Report contains a considerable number of interesting and revealing findings, at its core it is about one question related to the library’s brand. It sought to determine what people, students in our case, think of when they think of the library. Just as most academic institutions have a brand in order to shape what the general public and potential students think of when they hear that college’s name, the Perception Report’s message is that the academic library should develop its own brand as well. Should the academic library brand be campus information gateway, center of learning and knowledge, source of cultural and social interaction? The process of identifying and developing the right brand for the college library should engage academic administrators and librarians.

What the Perceptions Report discovered about the academic library is that students associate it largely with books.(p.3-23) While that’s surprising, given current students’ inclination to gravitate to electronic gadgets and full-text article database content, having students associate the library with books is a good thing. The problem is that students’ overall use of books and libraries has diminished dramatically as Internet distractions rule their universe. (p.3-19) So any re-branding effort should build on books, but create awareness about the library’s myriad resources and services. Part of the challenge is that students see Internet search engines as a perfect lifestyle fit. (p. 3-1) How might academic libraries make themselves a more suitable fit to the student lifestyle? Some possibilities include:

There is vast potential to re-brand the academic library as campus leader in support of learning and building academic success. We must move beyond the library brand as information gateway. As Google and other information competitors continue to emerge as information gateways in their own right, academic libraries must brand themselves in ways that compel their user communities to associate the campus library with more than just information and in doing so differentiate the library from its non-academic competitors. Focusing on the traditional values of teaching, learning, technology and instructional support are strong strategies for building a vibrant new library brand for tumultuous times.


While the report makes for good reading, provides some validation of trends we anecdotally suspected, and alerts us to the hard work that awaits us, it will ultimately benefit higher education if academic librarians and their administrators assume a joint leadership role in examining the report in greater depth for the purpose of developing strategies to encourage more students to use the library and its resources. One important lesson librarians and administrators must take away from the report is this observation found on page 3-24:
“A potential reason for the disconnect between the user’s perception of libraries as books and the librarian’s association with a much broader set of products and services is a lack of user education...today’s information consumer is just not aware of what is currently available at libraries.”

The good news is that we have the tools, time, and opportunity to provide the exact type of user education needed to create awareness. It can happen in first-year experience programs. It can occur through campus-wide information literacy initiatives. It can happen during the learning process as faculty integrate the use of all the library’s resources into their lectures, courseware sites, and assignments. The report’s final section profiles library usage and perceptions of 14- to 17-year olds, and it indicates that 69 percent of them agree the library is a place to learn. We must capitalize on that perception and have strategies in place to quickly instill in the next generation of students that their academic library is about more than books. All that can stop us is our own deception that all we need do is stay the course and keep on channeling more and more electronic information to our students. As the Perceptions Report concludes, “it is time to rejuvenate the library brand.” — Steven Bell is Director of the Paul J. Gutman Library at Philadelphia University. Email – bells@philau.edu


NOTE: A copy of the OCLC College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources can be obtained free online in PDF format or in print for $12.00. Information on obtaining copies is found at http://www.oclc.org/reports/perceptionscollege.htm


Reactions to the OCLC Perceptions Report

Sometimes less is more…

If students could be made to appreciate and use libraries more fully, institutions would get more for their money, learning would improve, and research would be enhanced. People naturally will seek seemingly easy paths to information, such as the free online search engines, even though they may realize that such resources are less than comprehensive or trustworthy. It’s not surprising that students associate the library with books and studying, and this is a good thing, but it needs augmentation.

Libraries’ often overly complex web sites need to be “deconstructed” in many cases, simplified, and reconstructed as a simple search device with the power of Google, if we want to increase their use significantly. Sometimes, less is more; in our desire to be comprehensive and thorough, we alienate and drive away the very users we want to serve.

Bill Miller, FAU

Tools may change but motivations remain the same…

The findings from OCLC’s Perceptions Report are consistent with the findings of a long line of research dating back generations. Certainly technology has changed the delivery of information, but it is doubtful that it has influenced most students’ motivations to make sophisticated use that information. We have known for generations that for most students much of that motivation comes from assignments made by their instructors.

Harvie Branscomb, long-time chancellor at Vanderbilt University, wrote in 1940, “Books bought by the library lie unused on the shelves because instructors in large numbers are not depending upon these volumes to supply any essential element in the educational process for which they are responsible.”

Patricia Knapp in her seminal studies of the 1950s and 1960s concluded, “Where the instructor expected and planned for student use of the library, it occurred, where he did not, it did not occur.” Student culture is a “catalyst twice removed” from determining use of the academic library.

Guy Lyle, long-time librarian at Emory University, wrote in 1963, “Present teaching practices would appear to provide little incentive for students to do substantial and rewarding reading.”

The solutions to the problems are as challenging as understanding a system of higher education that rewards research over teaching, promotes content over pedagogy, and emphasizes graduate students over undergraduate students. All this results in a culture of higher education that values research and publication and the accumulation of these publications in libraries, but does not value the learning by undergraduates how to use effectively this accumulation of information.

Larry Hardesty, WSU, author of Faculty and the Library: The Undergraduate Experience. Ablex, 1991.

It’s still about Books, and degrees of Freedom…

Why is it so important we “quickly instill in the next generation of students that their academic library is about more than books?” A few years ago we were frantic when our students were defecting to Barnes and Nobles. We learned our lesson well, partially. We now know good coffee and comfortable seating are important.

Of course academic libraries are about more than books. “Books” are about more than books. But, contrary to reports from the NEA and from publishers, books are far from dead. Students use them less exclusively than in the past because there are more options than before. But even 20 years ago, students studied in libraries not just to read books, but to be among them. We need to create libraries, both physical and virtual, that honor that impulse rather than assume Google is our competitor. In fact, the boundaries between search engines and library content are dissolving as search engines discover content in our libraries through link resolvers and projects such as Open WorldCat. Internet search engines won’t be competition for libraries, they will be portals. We need to celebrate what’s distinctive about libraries.

And while it’s important to be distinctive, we need to think beyond our libraries, our classrooms, our campuses if we’re preparing students to learn for the rest of their lives. We should work more consciously to help students find and use information anywhere and for a variety of purposes, not just here and for the next assignment. We need to promote not just our libraries, but all libraries as civic spaces where their learning can go on. Students may think libraries are about books and college is about a degree; but they’re both about degrees of freedom.

Barbara Fister, GAU

 Students move on but Faculty are forever…

In the life of a university, students move through programs and move on; the faculty however, is forever. Well, perhaps not forever, but faculty are generally with the university longer than students and they certainly have the power to shape academic expectations and student behavior by designing assignments. Predictably, the Perceptions Report finds that the vast majority of students use the library only when they are working to complete assignments that require library use.

Efforts by librarians and administrators to market the library as critical to academic success are therefore most effective when directed toward the faculty. Librarians can collaborate with faculty to create or update research assignments and ensure that students will take advantage of current library collections and resources. Similarly, marketing the library to staff and faculty in tutoring services, writing centers, supplemental instruction programs or other academic support areas may be a more effective way to get students connected with library resources and services.

Kathleen Miller, FGCU



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last modified: September  2006


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