The phenomenon of constantly evolving user behaviours is a core premise of Jisc’s commitment to support academic libraries and curators more widely in making digitised and born digital content readily and consistently discoverable.
The Spotlight on the Digital project is therefore concerned with sharing understanding and identifying appropriate responses to the intertwining of global technology advances (for example, in mobile capabilities) and user behaviours / practices. Unlike King Canute, libraries, archives and museums cannot hope to tame or divert these tidal forces; they should rather be looking to anticipate and ride the best waves rather than being overwhelmed in the undertow.
As part of the initial Spotlight research, Jisc published in November 2013 a literature review that summarised the then state of research about the discovery behaviours of university students, teachers and researchers. It identified fourteen typical discovery behaviours and traced how these evolved across different phases of the journey from fresher to established faculty. Using a general search engine, notably Google (or Google Scholar), as the starting point both for discovery of both known items and for more exploratory searches was identified as being already the well-established preferred route to discovery for most students and increasingly becoming so for career researchers. An overview of the findings and link to the full report can be found at Top discovery channels in online user behaviour
As part of Spotlight Phase 2, Sero Consulting has undertaken a second literature review (spotlight_literature_review_sept2015), looking at what has subsequently been published about user discovery behaviours and curatorial responses.
This new report highlights five themes from the recent literature:
- Trends in user behaviour: Increasing confirmation that the ‘digital natives’ idea differentiating generational behaviour is out-dated, with online activity pervasive across all categories of users and age ranges. In addition, distinctions between different educational stages are less marked than earlier research indicated. Meanwhile expectations have become higher, with the norm fast becoming to expect to access resources anywhere from any device. Library tools sit in an eco-system alongside other tools from which users make strategic selections according to purpose. There is evidence that library staff tend to over-estimate the extent that users use library services, including discovery layers, as opposed to other services to discover resources.
- Debate on the library role in discovery: While many respond to evidence about users tending to bypass the library by looking for ways to make library services more effective, others are challenging the idea that libraries should aim to play a primary role in discovery at all. Although the evidence for the effectiveness of new discovery tools is still coming in, some argue that libraries should accept that their role in discovery is no longer to be the single starting point – if indeed it ever was, which is disputed – and develop services to support specific aspects of discovery in which it can help, or even, if the evidence shows that the investment being made in the tools is not reaping a return, cede discovery to Google and focus on other activities.
- Barriers to effectiveness: At the same time as debating the library role in discovery, researchers are identifying ways in which library services are presented in ways that hinder their effectiveness. More could be done to ensure seamless access across services, multiple locations and different devices. More just-in-time information and support could be given. There is evidence that libraries over-estimate the extent to which users understand library concepts, tools and even basic bibliographic formats and relationships. There is the beginning of detailed, localised ethnographic studies which can help library staff understand user behaviour not just in general, global terms but more specifically what their own users actually do.
- Evaluating effectiveness: With the competition from other discovery services, and new developments such as open access and semantic data, there is a developing focus on understanding what library and alternative discovery tools each do well. New library discovery tools can be convenient and flexible, but other services such as Google Scholar still out-perform libraries on factors such as speed of updates, covering non-standard sources, relevancy of results and complementary services such as citations and related articles.
- Emerging trends: new trends beginning to emerge that will impact on discovery are identified, including:
- The development of specialised apps for discovery rather than websites
- The growth of streaming services in music discovery, paralleled by early developments towards integrated online library services such as the Digital Public Library of America and talk in the UK of a digital public space (now being proposed by the BBC as an “Ideas Service”)
- The huge challenge still posed to library services by the pervasiveness of mobile devices
- Lessons to be learnt from the hidden economy of scholarly e-book piracy viewed as user-curated communities of interest for scholarly discovery
- First-hand accounts of the rapidly changing landscape of online trends and behaviour among current students, which can challenge popular preconceptions (e.g. Instagram may be more popular than Facebook) and signal significant developments (e.g. the easy-to-use interface design of Tinder)
In tracking and understanding these established and other newly emerging trends, we have the opportunity to gather knowledge pre-emptively about the online behaviour of the next generation of young people – students and researchers alike – who will enter universities 2020-2025, for whom all interfaces will be touch or gesture based and mouse navigation unknown, for whom online and offline experience is seamlessly blended, who seem to have high visual preferences, who want to be able to personalise and receive recommendations from the services they use, and who have a ruthlessly instrumental approach to search.