"I always stick with the first thing that comes up on Google. . ." Where People Go for Information, What They Use, and Why

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Key Takeaways

  • The Visitors and Residents project seeks to identify and recommend strategies that IT staff and library professionals can adopt to help students and faculty members better discover, access, and evaluate digital information.
  • The project team interviewed participants from four educational stages — from emerging (high school/secondary school seniors and first-year college students) through experiencing (faculty members) — that focus on context and motive rather than age as a determining factor in information-seeking behaviors.
  • In addition to identifying how and why individuals engage with technology to acquire the information, the project offers recommendations on how to build relationships with community members and how to study user behavior to better test and develop library systems.

Note: The quote in the title was made by a participant in the study reported on in this article.1


Lynn Silipigni Connaway is a senior research scientist and Erin M. Hood is a research support specialist at the Online Computer Library Center. Donna Lanclos is associate professor for Anthropological Research at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, J. Murrey Atkins Library.

To better meet the needs of the academic community, education IT staff and library and information science (LIS) professionals must know the extent to which people are engaged with their institution's technologies and sources. What is behind the choices that people make about the information they consume? How do they determine whether or not a source is authoritative? What fluencies (digital, information, and computer) are relevant to people's choices? What are the motives behind choosing one source or plan of action over another?

The Visitors and Residents (V&R) project, started in 2010, proposes that context and motive matter more than age or skill level when it comes to people's decisions about technology and digital spaces. This new understanding of technology engagement offers a balanced alternative to Marc Prensky's "digital natives" metaphor.2 The V&R project's emerging research results uncover the contexts in which individuals use technology (in homes, at institutions, and so on) and how this engagement changes as people transition between educational stages, from the final year of high school to faculty positions at universities.

Although people historically have depended on institutionally provided resources and technology, today's affordable connectivity and devices have enabled access to the open web and its numerous free information sources. Thus, the need for local infrastructure has declined.3 Individuals are not limited to an institution's online catalog, but rather have access to information at a much broader level, such as through web browsers and online services. Also, the convenience of finding information online does not directly equate with the information's quality.

The V&R project results help identify ways to aid academic community members develop their skills in discovering, accessing, and evaluating digital information.

Here, we focus on three primary areas:

  • where people go when looking for information,
  • what sources they use the most, and
  • why they choose and return to these sources instead of other sources.

We also include specific recommendations for organizations based on our preliminary research results, which are drawn primarily from structured interviews conducted since 2010.4

The Visitors and Residents Framework

The V&R project is a collaboration between the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and the University of Oxford, in partnership with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; it has been underway for the past two years with partial funding from JISC.5 The project outlines learners' modes of engagement within four educational stages and how these learners intersect with institutional services.

The V&R premise is a continuum: individuals' modes of engagement will be more visitor or more resident, depending on their personal motivations and context,6 and individuals frequently move between the two modes. In visitor mode, people treat the web as a series of tools. They decide what they want to achieve, choose an appropriate online tool, and then log off. They leave no social trace of themselves online. In resident mode, people live a portion of their lives online and approach the web as a place where they can express themselves and spend time with people. When acting as residents, people visit social networking platforms, and aspects of their digital identity maintain a presence even when they're not online through their social media profiles.

The V&R project's intent is to identify how and why individuals engage with technology to acquire the information they need. To uncover the hows and whys, we recruited individuals from four project-defined educational stages:

  • Emerging: last-year high school/secondary and first-year undergraduate college/university students
  • Establishing: upper division undergraduate college/university students
  • Embedding: graduate students
  • Experiencing: faculty

We use these stages because they reflect the behavioral commonalities among high school seniors and college freshmen, as well as the differences that emerge when people transition to upper-division undergraduate status and beyond. First-year college students' information-seeking practices seem to mimic habits they acquired in high school. Changes to those habits will be embedded in the practices and relationships that individuals engage in during their remaining time in college and later on in professional contexts.

To date, findings indicate that the behavior patterns revealed in the V&R research noticeably vary by the participants' educational stage rather than by age, which can vary broadly within each stage. This categorization by educational stages rather than age contrasts with Prensky's "natives and immigrants" paradigm. However, the visitors and residents notion more accurately reflects the reality that individual choices about technology and information seeking derive from context — that is, from individuals' educational and professional priorities — rather than from their age.

Mapping the V&R Framework

During an EDUCAUSE 2012 session and two expert sessions at the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Conference, education IT staff and LIS professionals mapped their own activities and their perceptions of one of their user groups' activities onto a V&R pole map with two axes: the horizontal Visitor-Resident (V, R) axis, and the vertical Personal-Institutional (P, I) axis.

Figure 1 shows an example of a librarian's activities: high-level visitor mode within the institutional context, with a great deal of Google searching, as well as some Facebook, Flickr, and Vimeo use. Resident behavior is shown in both institutional and personal contexts through the use of Pinterest, blogging, texting, and Google docs. Figure 2 shows the same librarian's perception of undergraduate engagement with a heavy emphasis on resident mode in the personal context: Facebook, blogs, twitter, Instagram, texting, and Flickr. She mapped e-mail for undergraduates on the visitor end of the continuum and divided it in two to represent use of two different e-mail addresses — one institutional and one personal.

figure 1

Figure 1. The V&R map of a library professional

figure 2

Figure 2. The same librarian's perception of undergraduate engagement

These mapping exercises illustrate the tools/digital space that people use/inhabit, which is less important than what they are doing in that space with that tool. That is, it is not enough to count how many students are on Twitter or Facebook; further qualitative inquiry is necessary to determine what they might be doing with these tools in these environments. For example, some people use Facebook to periodically connect with people, others post everything to their Facebook wall, and still others use Facebook as a clearinghouse to track their events and organizations. Ideally, the analysis of what people are doing to engage with resources should be tool-agnostic, just as IT support should be device-agnostic (individuals on campus should be able to do their work whether they have a Mac or a PC, a netbook, or a mobile phone). Further, an outreach/engagement strategy that simply provides an institutional presence on Facebook or Twitter, without providing information of interest to the academic community, is unlikely to succeed.

Research Design and Methods

The V&R uses both quantitative and qualitative methods for a mixed methods approach, which can increase the validity of our findings.7 We use the qualitative methods of semi-structured interviews, sometimes accompanied by monthly diaries and follow-up interviews, to create a rich, descriptive longitudinal study of preselected individuals who represent the four educational stages. Qualitative methods are fitting when the phenomena being studied are social in nature, complex, and unquantifiable.8 It is acceptable for qualitative research to use small samples, as it is not always necessary to generalize the data to wider populations.9 Using this type of research is best when the topic is personal, when the researcher wants to go into greater detail about a small unit, or when there is little previous knowledge about the topic.10 This method can be significantly useful in exploratory research.11

All individuals in the four educational stages participated in the semi-structured interviews, and a subset of each stage also participated in monthly diary submissions and follow-up interviews. (Our interview questions, along with the written diary submission questions and outline and the diary follow-up questions, are available elsewhere.12) The stratified, purposive, nonprobability sampling methods and the small sample size restrict our ability to generalize on the results of these interviews and diary entries. However, the findings offer a glimpse at how a specific group of individuals engaged with technology and how their behaviors changed (or not) over a three-year period.

In Phase 1 of the V&R project, we conducted semi-structured interviews with participants in the four educational stages in the US and UK.13 Including a sample of participants from outside the US allows for a more effective answer to questions such as: Do the behaviors occur because of the technology? Are the behaviors characteristic of people who are in university settings? Do geographic and cultural differences between participants in the UK and the US influence the way individuals engage with technology and get information?

In Phase 2 of the project, we selected a subset of the interviewees to participate in monthly information diaries.14 Each diarist submitted, in the form of their choice, descriptions of the types of activities they did online, both in academic and nonacademic settings. Diaries were primarily submitted via e-mail messages (because they were "formal communication" with researchers), but a few participants also submitted video logs.15 We intended the diary entries and follow-up interviews to provide time-depth to the study. They also reveal changes that might occur as participants transition from one educational stage to another or as new digital innovations emerge or become more widely available in both educational and personal settings. Figure 3 shows a chart of the project's phases and participants' educational stages from 2010–2013.

figure 3

Figure 3. The Visitor and Residents project phases

To compare and verify the qualitative method results, we use quantitative methods. Specifically, we are distributing an online survey of a broader population selected by the quota sampling method; this survey will be both generalizable and comparative. For the survey, which is scheduled to be disseminated before the end of 2013, we will choose 25 participants from each educational stage from both the US and the UK. If the sample of 100 individuals does not reach saturation, we will select another sample of 100 individuals.

Content analysis is a critical and time-consuming aspect of any qualitative research study. In our case, it consisted heavily of coding interview transcripts and the various types of follow-up diary submissions. Once we completed the initial interview round in V&R Phase 1, we used the emerging themes identified in the interview data to develop a codebook for analysing the project data.16 After each research team member tested the codebook's first iteration, we discussed and reached agreements on any differences and modified the codebook to better reflect the emerging themes. After the codebook was completed and refined, we progressively coded both the interviews and diaries through each phase. For this study, the codebook focused on several themes, including place, sources, tools, agency, situation/context, and contact.17 Some of the themes of interest were not present in the original interviews with the emerging-stage students. For example, none of them mentioned "librarians." Because we were interested in discussing the role of librarians in information-seeking situations, we added a code for "Librarian" so that we could talk about the relative absence of that theme in the data. (Participants in the other educational stages did mention librarians in their individual interviews.)

Using qualitative methods with a small sample size and a quantitative method with the large sample size gave us rich, thick data descriptions as well as numerical analyses and comparisons. If the quantitative and qualitative data show little variance, it will be possible to generalize all of our findings. Here, however, we report only some of the findings from the qualitative data collection methods.


To interpret the V&R data, we must examine how individuals acquire the information-seeking behaviors and technology-centered practices of their respective communities within and outside of academia. We drew insights from the community of practice literature, especially the works of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger and Barbara Rogoff and Wenger, which outline and analyze what happens when people learn how to be members of groups.18 The literature describes a wide variety of groups, including vocational, educational, and recovery. Central to Lave and Wenger's 1991 discussion is the idea of legitimate peripheral participation:

We intend for the concept to be taken as a whole. Each of the aspects is indispensable in defining the others and cannot be considered in isolation.... Thus, in the terms proposed here there may very well be no such thing as an "illegitimate peripheral participant." The form that the legitimacy of participation takes is a defining characteristic of ways of belonging, and is therefore not only a crucial condition for learning, but a constitutive element of its content. Similarly, with regard to "peripherality" there may well be no such simple thing as "central participation" in a community of practice. Peripherality suggests that there are multiple, varied, more- or less-engaged and -inclusive ways of being located in the fields of participation defined by a community. Peripheral participation is about being located in the social world. Changing locations and perspectives are part of actors' learning trajectories, developing identities, and forms of membership.19

Lave and Wenger further point out that legitimate peripheral participation occurs within social structures that involve power relations. So, different power relations can serve as barriers to or facilitators of participation. No inevitable progress toward a "center" exists in their structure; rather, it is an attempt to give a theoretical structure to a changeable social phenomenon. They emphasize that their concept is not "itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique. It is an analytical viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning."20

Participants in our V&R interviews engage in practices that they acquired in social matrices of friends, family, peers, teachers, co-workers, and supervisors. Participants' relationships with people from whom they learn practices in turn inform the relationships they have to those practices, the resources they choose to consult, and the resources they reject. Their confidence in the acquired practices appears to be directly related to the strength of their connection to the community in which they are participating. That connection has less to do with abstract notions of best practices than it does with the familiar — not to be confused with the convenient, although that comes into it as well — which we define as those practices engaged in by people the participants trust, and with whom they have existing relationships.

The V&R paradigm is based on the assumption that individuals' engagement with technology is related to whether they regard the platforms they use as tools or places. The manner in which individuals engage with technology and access information is influenced by context and situation. In today's environment, people often are inundated with information sources and might make choices based on the source's appearance or familiarity — or on how much time they think accessing that information will take, which is a significant context in information seeking.21 Time is related to convenience, which is a recurring theme in information-seeking behavior research.22 When asked about using information systems, individuals repeatedly state that they want to find information conveniently and quickly.23 Research also suggests that convenient service often is more important to people than quick service.24 Convenience can be either physical or virtual, based on the particular context and situation.25 Campus information commons — with 24/7 access to materials and facilities and cafes — are popular because they are convenient for individuals in specific situations.26

Situation is related to context but is somewhat narrower. "Situation refers to the time-space concept in which sense is constructed."27 Context provides the background for that which individuals want to understand and explain.28 "Convenience is a situational criterion in people's choices and actions during all stages of the information-seeking process. The concept of convenience can include their choice of an information source, their satisfaction with the source and its ease of use, and their time horizon in information seeking."29

Location: Where Do People Go for Information?

When talking about places they went for information, interviewees mentioned Internet resources, such as search engines and social media sites, far more often than physical places. This reliance on digital spaces coexists with a persistent need to be in contact with other people both online and face to face. Personal networks, and the relationships that comprise them, were important factors in participants' information-seeking strategies across educational stages.30 This is a key point to remember when thinking about how to attract people to institutional information and technology resources.

Modes and Mode Combinations

Participants' varied modes of digital contact combined visitor modes (texting, private messaging, and e-mail) and resident modes (Twitter and media postings). It is therefore not enough to get individuals to want to access services/resources; you must make such access available in a wide variety of platforms. Representative quotes from the interview data illustrate this nicely31:

"I don't use Twitter, partially because a lot of my friends — there's a certain negative connotation with Twitter that it's online presence taken too far, taken to the extreme among people my age, I suppose."
 —UKG2, Embedding, 0:25:47, Female, Age 22
"I get on Twitter a whole bunch…. Twitter or Facebook are what I usually use the most to talk to my friends."
—USS1, Emerging, 0:09:28, Female, Age 17
"No, no. I think Twitter's a bit bizarre because it seems to be people just declaring what they think rather than socializing really with other people. I mean, you can choose to comment upon what other people are saying, but in general it's sort of like a declaration of your status, and I don't really see why it's — well I see why it's so popular, but it's not for me, I don't think."
—UKU12, Establishing, 0:03:16, Female, Age 21

Of course, even Twitter and blogs can be approached in the less-visible visitor mode when people use them to consume rather than produce Internet content. Because people use various platforms in a range of modes, you need a broad commitment to multiple technology modes for information seeking and communication.

In the case of e-mail, however, people seem to conform readily to the current expectation that e-mail is where official communication occurs. Individuals in the emerging stage mentioned e-mail much less than individuals in the establishing stage. When these emerging-stage students did mention using e-mail, it was to communicate with teachers or for other school business, such as school activities and administration. Clearly, as people move through the educational stages, they become more reliant upon e-mail and recognize the consequences of not checking their accounts regularly.

"So, I find that a lot of the time, it's easier for me just to e-mail them [lecturers], and they would get back to me pretty… pretty quick."
—2UKU2, Emerging, 08:29, Male, Age 18
"I talk to all of my lecturers if I don't understand something. And they're usually very good at replying. Also, the good thing about Exeter is all of them [have] contacts. Everyone has the ability to contact everyone. So you have advertisements, um, good opportunities for anyone and, actually, study abroad came through on the e-mails."
—2UKU3, Emerging, 8:05, Female, Age 19
"Oh yeah. Like, if I don't get something, I usually just e-mail them [teachers]. And hopefully they e-mail me like maybe an hour after — but sometimes they don't. I just find that helpful."
—2USS2, Emerging, 09:03, Female, Age 17
"I usually e-mail the professor or ask somebody in my class."
—2USU3, Emerging, 11:11, Female, Age 19


The frequent mentions of texting, telephone calls, and private messaging by emerging- and establishing-stage interviewees correlates with the technologies they said they could not live without: cellphones, smart phones, and laptops. They used these not only for communicating and contacting individuals but also for searching the Internet and organizing their time and activities using calendars.

"It's the cell phone… you can do so much with it, it is not something you want to really lose or get rid of. I mean, if I break my phone I'll get a replacement the next day just because they are that important. It's the biggest way to get in contact with people."
—USU3, Emerging, 00:09:23, Male, Age 19
"If I had to — if I could only pick one, it would be… it would be the MacBook, just because these are for convenience, these are mobile and 'net on the go, but, really, as far as continuing to facilitate efficiency and life, the MacBook is where it is. This is just a slightly less computer on the go, but I can still do my homework, I can still get on Facebook, and I can still connect and e-mail people with the MacBook."
—USU5, Emerging, 0:15:45, Male, Age 19
"I could probably live without my phone. But I could probably not live without the computer and, you know, the Internet. Because work and the e-mails… yes."
—USU2, Emerging, 0:11:50, Female, Age 19
"I'd say it would have to be my phone because I keep in contact with people on it. I've got things like the Internet, so I can use Facebook, I can check my e-mails. I can download apps and stuff, I have got a SatNav on my phone, so if I ever get lost — which happens a lot — I can just check to see where I am and where I'm going."
—UKU6, Emerging, 00:03:39, Female, Age 19
"My laptop. It's got to be my laptop… yes. Everything's on there, like just everything that I use. All the programs that I use and kind of all my work I like to back up on my laptop and stuff. If it went down I'd be very, very unhappy." (Laughter)
—UKU5, Emerging, 0:03:06, Female, Age 19
"I think my phone…. I just — it's just the easiest way to keep in contact with people. And also with phones these days, it's like a mini computer to be honest. Smart phones — so, yes."
—UKS7, Emerging, 0:06:22, Female, Age 17

As these quotes show, the "most important" device varied from individual to individual. Some could not live without their phones, others their laptops. Such results reinforce the importance of device-agnostic services and resources. The results also demonstrate that, as portable devices gain functionality traditionally available only on a laptop or desktop, individuals will adopt the technology that is most convenient for their situation. The individuals who participated in this study expect to use their own technology to connect with institutional (and other) resources, and also to engage in resident modes of behavior.

Navigation and Ideal Solutions

Also important are digital places unmediated by personal networks; ease of navigation for such places is essential. In this typically visitor mode of engagement, people do not seek to connect with other people, but rather with resources.

"Yes, for many journals it's [go] directly…. I don't go through [academic library name] as much anymore because I have the journals I look at bookmarked. But usually, it's a couple of different search engines that are used for looking for an article or just what's new on this topic."
I used to make regular trips to the library to read journals, and I haven't been to [academic library name] to read a journal [in] many years. If I go there, it's for meetings. "
—USF4, Experiencing, 0:22:02-0:27:15, Male, Age 54

Interviewees frequently described digital solutions in response to the questions, "If you had a magic wand, what would be your ideal way of getting information? How would you go about using the systems and services? When? Where? How?" (Many of the respondents seemed to be describing a better Google — that is, a better way of identifying more accurate and relevant information and sources). A UK university student responded in the following way:32

"My ideal way I think definitely would have to be a mixture of digital and analogue sort of research, well finding things…. Basically sort of what you do in the natural world like go into a library and picking books off a shelf. But if you had a virtual reality sort of version of that in which you didn't have to physically necessarily go to a library or you could physically go to… or you could digitally go to a library that had everything you could possibly want but you didn't need to necessarily go wandering around it forever. I think that would be the best, that would be the ideal sort of way of doing it, yes. Certainly the ease of the Internet and the ease of everything, having everything digitally is brilliant. I mean obviously you can store several thousand libraries worth of information on the Internet. And to have that accessible — but also … in a more instinctual way.… There's a certain sort of, I don't know, a certain sort of nice feeling about going into a library and picking a book off the shelf and going and sitting down and reading it. If you could do that in a digital environment, that'd be fantastic."
—UKU11, Establishing, 0:36:10, Male, Age 33

Both in this study and in previous studies users did not consistently associate digital academic resources with academic libraries. People might recognize that the resources they are using are not popular or nonacademic resources, but they seem to be unaware (or think it is unimportant to note) that those resources are associated with a library.33 Research also indicates that even the terminology used in libraries, such as the phrase, Ask a Librarian, is not understood by library users.34

Recommendations: Location

Institutional services and systems must be embedded within the academic community's workflow so that individuals are able to use critical skills for inquiry wherever they land in the information landscape.35 Aggregating these services and systems into combined interfaces or portals might also entice individuals to use them. Following are some suggestions for university IT and LIS professionals who want to attract their user groups to institutional resources:

  • Provide a broad range of tools. People make decisions in a variety of contexts, so the outcome of any given task is hard to predict. If we lock our patrons into one tool or mode of engagement (whether visitor or resident) and disregard other possibilities, we drive them away.
  • Create simple and convenient interface designs. As an example of such a design, figure 4 shows Trove, the National Library of Australia's catalog. Another example is Finna, an online catalog that offers access to Finland's archives, libraries, and museums (see figure 5). Overly complex institutional interfaces will consistently drive patrons to the Internet resources they already know and trust, even if the solutions they offer are not as effective as those their institutions provide.
figure 4

Figure 4. Interface for Trove, the National Library of Australia's catalog

figure 5

Figure 5. The interface of Finland's Finna

  • Remove barriers between information discovery and access. You can do this by providing enough descriptive information about sources for individuals to easily determine whether a particular source has the information they need.
  • Promote and market services to the academic constituencies. It is not enough to only provide services; people must know that these services are available.

These recommendations are not new, but our research results suggest that they remain important and have yet to be adequately addressed.

Sources: What Are People Finding and Using?

Regardless of whether people get recommendations from personal networks (online or offline) or in digital locations such as Google, the sources they choose to use are overwhelmingly digital.

Primary Sources

Databases were mentioned more than any kind of electronic books by a wide margin of participants in our study. Explicit mentions of databases are particularly characteristic of faculty and graduate students. The increase begins with undergraduates (because high school seniors rarely have access to university-provided databases), and the higher the participants' educational levels, the greater the number of database mentions. For people affiliated with universities, database use most closely mirrors the use of the free web (that is, content not paid for by institutions or individuals) in that they do not have to pay for the resource themselves (because their institutions pay for it) and because the items they find tend to be articles — a shorter and more convenient format than books. Participants viewed the library stereotypically, seeing it primarily as a place to access books rather than other sources or services; this view has been reported consistently in the literature as well.36

The significant number of database mentions by our study's participants shows how important they are within academic and library contexts to both embedding-stage (graduate student) and experiencing-stage (faculty) participants. Emerging- and establishing-stage participants did not talk about databases as explicitly as graduate students and faculty did, possibly because they did not know they were using academic databases (again underlining the importance of marketing). The emerging participants typically talked more generally about using the library's digital resources, without specifically mentioning databases. They also talked about social media such as Facebook in academic contexts. However, this was not unique to these early stage students, as the following quote from a UK graduate student indicates:

"Our Learning and Technology group is trying to start a wiki because it's a useful way to develop our interests on each having a separate page and being able to share resources. We do that through Facebook currently. We do say, 'Hey, this is a resource about blogging that I'd like to pass onto you because I know you're interested in it.' We do that through Facebook, but we find it's very difficult to separate out. There's only one feed for different people's interests. So, we're looking at developing a wiki to kind of share ideas and resources between our different topic areas and force ourselves to develop our topic areas in a public forum, a forum where we'd have to write out what we're interested in online. But the Facebook group is extremely active also, if not for just complaining about an assignment or trying to find a particular reading, but also sharing current news articles with each other."
—UKG2, Embedding, 0:15:35, Female, Age 22

Mentions of the free web, as represented by major media sites and Wikipedia, also far outnumbered mentions of university databases or course management systems such as Moodle, even among graduate students.37 Wikipedia was heavily mentioned by participants in all educational stages, including half of the faculty/scholar participants. Mentions of major media sites were lowest among emerging students, increased with graduate students, and then declined among faculty — a pattern that directly contrasts with that of databases.

Although some disciplines strongly rely on peer-reviewed articles, other fields consider secondary and social media sources, such as newspaper articles and blogs, to be viable resources.38 Helena Francke and Olof Sundin reported that educators would recommend the Internet and sources like Wikipedia as viable options because they are so up to date for researching "current trends, new technology, and popular phenomena."39 This is supported in our data by relatively high faculty mentions of Wikipedia use for orienting themselves on unfamiliar topics. Laura Saunders also found that faculty are "concerned with students' reliance on Google and Wikipedia for information."40 This might help explain why many of the emerging-stage participants expressed a reluctance to cite Wikipedia in their work for fear of being ridiculed by faculty or given a lower grade. This "learning black market" (a phrase coined by our colleague David S. White) is discussed in more detail elsewhere.41

Recommendations: Sources

Rather than perpetuating this "black market" traffic in resources, institutions should use individual Internet practices as a guide to linking institutional resources to those on the open web. Individuals use a broad range of tools to get information, and they engage with technology in multiple ways. It is therefore imperative to provide a broad range of tools and services in different media. One size cannot fit all; we should strive for a diversity of approaches based on how individuals engage with technology  and get their information:

  • Converse with your academic constituencies to identify their information-seeking and evaluation strategies in both library and open web contexts. It will then be possible to advise them on ways to improve their strategies and to integrate both environments into a broad information-seeking strategy.
  • Use what we already know about how people use Wikipedia to link library content to Wikipedia articles. As figure 6 shows, the University of Washington library has done this with authoritative references and links to full text, open content in special collections, and other resources on salmon following Wikipedia community norms. Library and other information professionals are encouraged to add references to the most relevant resources in their collection as they relate to a particular topic. Engaging with Wikipedia can range from librarians attending local editathons for practical experience, to employing a Wikipedian in Residence as many institutions have done, including OCLC.42 Lorcan Dempsey refers to this as the "inside-out" model of managing resources.43
figure 6

Figure 6. The University of Washington actively links its collections to relevant Wikipedia articles

Why People Choose: Source Evaluation, Authority, and Legitimacy

Relevance and reliability are highly important to emerging-stage students, perhaps because they lack subject expertise. As individuals progress through their educational stages, they become more familiar with subject-specific sources and learn how to navigate journals, publishers, databases, and human sources (such as authors). Even without subject expertise, however, emerging-stage participants were concerned about selecting reliable sources and often mentioned searching for web sites from domains such as .edu, .ac, and .gov, which they viewed as more reliable than commercial domains such as .com.

Participants also mentioned repetition of the same information from several different sources as a measure of reliability, as the following quote exemplifies:

"And so it's kind of time really to stop once you've got information that corresponds with information from somewhere else — that's like if you've got two comparative sources that agree, then kind of the place to stop is really within the limits of that thing."
—UKU4, Emerging, 0:26:22, Male, Age 19

Pickard and Logan reported finding this approach more common among senior undergraduate students than those of freshmen undergraduate students.44

Some study participants measured reliability based on a site's appearance:

"It depends. It depends who's made the website or what I have been told about the website or whether I know about it at all. But — it sounds silly — but sometimes you can just tell whether a website looks reliable or not depending on how professional [it] looks and who's written it."
—UKU6, Emerging, 00:16:04, Female, Age 19

Similarly, according to Pickard and Logan, their "freshmen interviewees used general terms such as 'scholarly,' 'reliable,' 'peer-reviewed,' 'written by professors,' and 'looks fancy'" to judge a source as scholarly or not.45

Convenience: The Key Factor

Not surprisingly, participants in all stages frequently mentioned convenience/ease of use as an important factor in obtaining information. Emerging students also consistently discussed authority/legitimacy, though mentions of this decreased among establishing students, only to increase again among embedded and experiencing participants.

Information science has long been concerned with how individuals evaluate a source's authority or legitimacy, yet the issue has increasing immediacy given the numerous information sources that are outside academic institutions or unvetted by the publishing review process. Harlan, Bruce, and Lupton found that, among teenaged participants, authority was established if the information came from a teacher or from a professional, popular, or helpful source — or if the source sounded self-confident.46 Francke and Sundin reported that approaches for evaluating credibility depended on the discipline and subject.47 Saunders observed that differences in approaches to evaluating authority occur as students become more immersed in their fields.48

These findings support the conclusions of Connaway, Dickey, and Radford, who reported that convenience trumps all other reasons for selecting and using a source. Convenience also is determined by the information seeker's context and situation.49 Immediacy's relative lack of importance in choosing sources is striking — and counter to assumptions about people's desire for immediate gratification. Connaway, Dickey, and Radford corroborate this view of immediacy, finding that speed in getting information is less important than convenience.50

Information Quality

The V&R data indicate that evaluation is taking place — individuals are not using sources without considering information quality. The factors that most strongly influence the choice of sources, however, are issues other than quality, such as the amount of time available and the assignment's stakes:

"I may have to use other sources than the Internet. Right now, I use a lot of the Internet. When you walked in, I was reading — we have a workbook that came with our AP Biology book, and then, for AP Stats, I bought the [Barron's] test prep book, and I used that. I'll probably have to use more books in college, I'm thinking, than just the Internet. There are some things that for college you can't find on the Internet. You're doing a research paper or something, and it's on a subject that's further in the past — you'd have more reliable resources outside of the Internet."
—USS7, Emerging, 0:17:53, Female, Age 17
"Last semester, I was writing a paper on Brazil and there was a book in the library that I just did not want to leave my house to go to. It is a 50-minute drive, I didn't want to do that, but I was writing my paper and so I used Google books instead and really they only had a section of the book available but that was the section I used. So, you know, doing that instead of coming here physically and going to get the whole book. And it saved time, it saved gas, I got what I needed, and it wasn't a big deal."
—USG4, Embedding, 0:39:42, Female, Age 23
[Laughter] "And again … the lovely thing about the Internet is it's all instantly, it is all there, and so you can pick exactly what it is that you want to watch and just shove that on."
—UKS8, Emerging, 0:05:50.5, Male, Age 17
So, if it's possible, I will want some, like, intelligent device to filter everything for me. So I can just get everything that's essential to me. Useful to me. So I can save my time from, you know, wasting it on filtering everything by myself."
—UKG1, Embedding, 0:43:39, Female, Age 23


When an individual is searching for information, various channels might be open and gatekeeping can occur.51 "In the communications field, "gatekeeping" refers to a process in which numerous messages are reduced to just a few.52 The entrance to each channel or section of channel is called a gate [and] movement from one channel selection to another is determined by human gatekeepers, or a set of impartial rules."53 Positive and negative forces surround the gates; therefore, whether or not someone passes through a gate depends on the forces surrounding or guarding the gate.

For example, a student who wants to find a work by a specific author might have several channels available, including search engines, databases, professors, and peers. The student might choose a search engine because it has fewer negative forces at the gate — databases require login, and e-mailing or calling a professor or friend takes time. Essentially, the student perceives the search engine as the easiest channel for information. Also, some channels might have multiple gates, which increases the likelihood that the student will reject them.54

The Importance of Relationship

Sometimes, people turn to their personal networks to determine a source's legitimacy. The composition of those networks shifts as individuals move through the educational stages, as reflected in our interview data (see table 1). Emerging-stage students consulted parents, siblings, and friends about academic work. In Pickard and Logan's study, freshmen sought help from their friends/classmates and family members at a higher rate than seniors.55 Establishing-stage students consulted roommates, classmates, and siblings who have taken similar classes before. Graduate students consulted graduate school peers and professors, but consulted far less than individuals in any other educational stage. Faculty most often consulted friends, colleagues, and peers.

Table 1. Human Sources Mentioned by More Than One-Third of the Participants


 Participant Educational Stages

Human Sources















Extended Family




































The lack of consistent mentions for expert/professionals and librarians by participants across all educational stages differs slightly from the findings of Pickard and Logan; in their study, senior college/university students "referred to 'Reference Librarians' and the 'Circulation Desk.'"56 In our study the highest mentions of these sources were from faculty/scholars, followed by emerging-stage students. However, the latter group often did not use the term librarian, as exemplified by one of the participants:

"...a lady in the library who helps you find things."
—USU5, Emerging, 0:37:17, Male, Age 19

This corroborates Pickard and Logan's findings that "...most freshmen often did not know that reference librarians existed, much less what they did."57

Clearly, individuals seek what they need within the relationships that surround them. As they move through the educational stages, their networks are increasingly populated with people who have relevant subject expertise. By the time people become faculty members, calling a "friend" about an article almost certainly means the friend is also an expert in the field. Relationships continue to be a major component in how individuals get information and whom they choose for collaboration. The desire to make contact with others also motivates people to engage with technology.58

In the V&R interviews, collaboration was most common with emerging-stage participants, decreased sharply for both establishing and embedding participants, and then increased for experiencing participants. This might reflect not only the need for collaboration among emerging students, but also the emphasis on individual/isolating work for more advanced students. The high level of faculty collaboration is an interesting contrast to the training that graduate students apparently receive. Given that scholars need to work with colleagues in teaching and research contexts after graduate school, the dip in collaboration as a motive for contact in graduate school is both a red flag and an opportunity. Identifying ways to help graduate students connect with their peers in other institutions is important because these individuals might become professional colleagues and collaborators as they gain specialized knowledge in their fields. Social media can be a tool for decreasing isolation among graduate students and better preparing them to be senior scholars and knowledgeable professionals.

Recommendations: Evaluation, Authority, and Legitimacy

We cannot overestimate the importance of embedding services and resources within the spaces where people build trusted relationships with individuals. Institutions should consider digital and face-to-face community building as a cornerstone of their enterprise-wide policies. Individuals will turn to libraries or librarians for resources only if they are a part of the individuals' networks. As the following recommendations show, social media tools can be used obliquely to build such relationships.

  • Ensure that your library has a diverse presence in both digital and physical spaces. Because academic constituencies need help in a variety of situations, you should offer services in multiple formats and at different hours of the day and night. Offer help at the time of need, such as pop-up chat in your online library catalogs for no retrievals and on institutional web pages within 10 seconds of visitor inactivity. Also, education IT staff and LIS professionals should be embedded in online and physical classes, and possibly have offices in their respective academic departments.
  • Engage in interesting discussions and innovative strategies for promoting and making collections come to life using social media. A great example here is the University of Nevada, Reno, which offers a lively special collections presence on Facebook.59


Our recommendations here are not revenue neutral; they require expertise, time, and resources. Given the current economic climate and the resulting shortfall of university resources due to state budget cuts and decreasing endowments, how can institutions recalibrate their services as outlined above?

One way is to engage with academic community members, which offers the opportunity to better assess their needs and to provide services and systems that they'll actually use. Our study results indicate that individuals do contact other people when they need help or specific information; initiating and developing relationships is therefore necessary. As Mathews states, "By focusing on relationship building instead of service excellence, organizations can uncover new needs and be in position to make a stronger impact."60

However, to engage with users and potential users of our systems and services, we must be present and available in the spaces in which they dwell. We cannot simply create a social media account for the library; we must become an involved and interactive presence within the social media venue. This means becoming personally involved in promoting the library collections by spotlighting special collections, archival materials, and the digital library.

Connecting with students in the library's physical spaces also builds relationships. For example, at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, the J. Murrey Atkins Library stages an exam break room with games, art supplies, snacks, comfortable chairs, and even pillows.61 Close to where they study, the room lets students take a break from the intensity of studying for final exams without completely losing their focus. Marketing materials and social media engagement made it clear that the library was responsible for the break room, associating the library staff with concern for students and their well-being.

Hosting special programs and adding links to special collections in Wikipedia can promote the physical library, its services, and its collections. Also, embedding librarians both physically and virtually within academic departments or classes also promotes the library as an active participant in the learning and teaching environments.

Finally, studying user behavior can enhance the development and testing of library systems. Our findings suggest that people prefer easy-to-use, familiar systems with a simple interface design. To ensure that your library catalog and website interfaces best meet users' needs, you can analyze catalog and web logs to identify their information-seeking and evaluation strategies. Such an analysis will also help librarians better advise users on ways to improve their search and evaluation practices. These strategies will in turn give you new opportunities to market institutional systems and services and encourage users' engagement with them. Finally — and critically, in these times — such strategies can help libraries both assess and define their value to the larger academic institution.


This study was part of the Digital Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment? project, which was funded by JISC, University of Oxford, and OCLC, in partnership with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Special thanks to David S. White, University of Oxford, and Carrie Vass, our research assistant.

  1. Direct quote from USS1, Emerging, 0:21:57, Female, Age 18.
  2. For more in-depth information on the methods used for this study, see Lynn Silipigni Connaway, David White, Donna Lanclos, and Alison Le Cornu, "Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?" Information Research, vol. 18, no. 1, 2013; Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Donna Lanclos, and Erin M. Hood, "'I find Google a lot easier than going to the library website.' Imagine Ways to Innovate and Inspire Students to Use the Academic Library," Proceedings of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) 2013 Conference, April 10–13, 2013; David White, Digital Visitors and Residents: The Video, video presentation; David S. White and Alison Le Cornu, "Visitors and Residents: A New Typology for Online Engagement," First Monday, vol. 16, no. 9, 2011; and Marc Prensky, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," On the Horizon, vol. 9, no. 5 (October 2001).
  3. Lorcan Dempsey, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Libraries, Discovery, and the Catalog: Scale, Workflow, Attention," EDUCAUSE Review Online, December 10, 2012.
  4. In our analysis of interview data, we use frequency of mentions as a proxy for issues that should be addressed by academic institutions. Each theme is the unit of analysis and the frequency of occurrence merits further analytical attention; for instance, if there are many mentions of Wikipedia, it is not enough to say, "Wikipedia is important," but to analyze the content of the interviews to identify why and how the interviewees were using Wikipedia.
  5. JISC, Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment, David White, Oxford University, and Lynn Silipigni Connaway, OCLC Research, Project Managers, 2011–2012.
  6. Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Donna Lanclos, David White, Alison Le Cornu, and Erin M. Hood, "User-Centered Decision Making: A New Model for Developing Academic Library Services and Systems," IFLA Journal, vol. 39, no. 1, 2013, pp. 30–36; Connaway, White, Lanclos, and Le Cornu, "Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?"; JISC, Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement.
  7. Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Ronald R. Powell, Basic Research Methods for Librarians, 5th ed., Libraries Unlimited, 2010.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid; Christine S. Davis, Heather L. Powell, and Kenneth L. Lachlan, Straight Talk about Communication Research Methods, Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2013.
  10. Davis, Powell, and Lachlan, Straight Talk about Communication.
  11. Connaway and Powell, Basic Research Methods for Librarians.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Online are the full list of semi-structured interview questions for emerging, establishing, and embedding; the full list of semi-structured interview questions for experiencing; and the full list of questions for monthly diary submissions.
  14. For more detailed information about the research methodology, see Connaway, White, Lanclos, and Le Cornu, "Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?" ISIC 2012 Conference Proceedings, 2012; and Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, "'I find Google a lot easier…,'"pp. 289–300; the full list of diarist follow-up interview questions is online.
  15. Connaway, Lanclos, White, Le Cornu, and Hood, "User-Centered Decision Making," p. 30–36.
  16. A minimum of 85 percent in inter-coder reliability levels of agreement is emphasized for most projects. An initial inter-coder reliability test was run to ensure high levels of agreement and again each time another coder was trained and brought in. Looking at two transcripts (one from the US and one from the UK), levels of agreement for the initial ICR tests were at 97.78 percent (0.6442 Kappa) for the UK transcript and 98.39 percent (0.6319 Kappa) for the US transcript. Following ICRs for new coders maintained the same high levels of agreement.
  17. The complete codebook is available online.
  18. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, University of Cambridge Press, 1991; Barbara Rogoff, Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press, 1990; and Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, University of Cambridge Press, 1998.
  19. Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning, p. 35–36.
  20. Ibid, p. 40.
  21. Reijo Savolainen, "Time as a Context of Information Seeking," Library & Information Science Research, vol. 28, no. 1, 2006, pp. 110–127; Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Timothy J. Dickey, and Marie L. Radford, "'If it is too inconvenient I'm not going after it': Convenience as a Critical Factor in Information-Seeking Behaviors," Library & Information Science Research, vol. 33, no. 3, 2011, p. 179–190.
  22. Connaway, Dickey, and Radford, "'If it is too inconvenient…,'" p. 179–190; Connaway, White, Lanclos, and Le Cornu, "Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?"; and Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, "'I find Google a lot easier…,'" pp. 289–300.
  23. Connaway, Dickey, and Radford, "'If it is too inconvenient…,'" pp. 179–190; Connaway and Radford, Seeking Synchronicity: Revelations and Recommendations for Virtual Reference, OCLC Research, 2011; Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, "'I find Google a lot easier…,'" pp. 289–300; Connaway, Lanclos, White, Le Cornu, and Hood, "User-Centered Decision Making," pp. 30–36; and Connaway, White, Lanclos, and Le Cornu, "Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?".
  24. Connaway, Dickey, and Radford, "'If it is too inconvenient…,'" pp. 179–190; and Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, "'I find Google a lot easier…,'" pp. 289–300.
  25. Lynn Silipigni Connaway, "Findings from User Behavior Studies: A User's World," presentation made at ALA Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits, Seattle, WA, January 28, 2012; Connaway, Lanclos, White, Le Cornu, and Hood, "User-Centered Decision Making," pp. 30–36; and Connaway, White, Lanclos, and Le Cornu, "Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?".
  26. Connaway, "Findings from User Behavior Studies."
  27. Reijo Savolainen, "The Sense-Making Theory: Reviewing the Interests of a User-centered Approach to Information Seeking and Use," Information Processing & Management, vol. 29, no. 1, 1993, p. 17.
  28. Sanna Talja, Heidi Keso, and Tarja Pietilainen, "The Production of 'Context' in Information Seeking Research: A Metatheoretical View," Information Processing & Management, vol. 35, no. 6, 1999, pp. 751–763.
  29. Connaway, Dickey, and Radford, "'If it is too inconvenient…,'" p. 180.
  30. For a more detailed discussion of individuals' interactions with humans as sources of information, see Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, "'I find Google a lot easier….'"
  31. Interviews were transcribed to include pauses and utterances such as "ah" and "um" (a few of which were removed for readability here). For anonymity, we assigned participants tags to indicate their country (UK or US) and educational stage ("S" for secondary school/high school, "U" for university, "G" for graduate students, and "F" for faculty), and gave each participant an identification number.
  32. Institute for Museums and Library Services Research Grant, "Sense-Making the Information Confluence: The Hows and the Whys of College and University User Satisficing of Information Needs," Brenda Dervin, Ohio State University, Principal Investigator, and Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Chandra Prabha, OCLC Research, Co-Investigators, 2003–2005; and JISC, Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement?.
  33. Institute for Museums and Library Services Research Grant, “Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives,” Lynn Silipigni Connaway, OCLC Research, and Marie L. Radford, Rutgers University, Co-Principal Investigators, 2005–2007; Institute for Museums and Library Services Research Grant, "Sense-Making the Information Confluence: The Hows and the Whys of College and University User Satisficing of Information Needs," Cathy De Rosa, Joanne Cantrell, Diane Cellentani, Janet Hawk, Lillie Jenkins, and Alane Wilson, Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, 2005; and Cathy De Rosa, Joanne Cantrell, Matthew Carlson, Peggy Gallagher, Janet Hawk, and Charlotte Sturtz, Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community: A Report to the OCLC Membership, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, 2011.
  34. Institute for Museums and Library Services Research Grant, “Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives,” Lynn Silipigni Connaway, OCLC Research, and Marie L. Radford, Rutgers University, Co-Principal Investigators, 2005–2007.
  35. Lorcan Dempsey, "Always On: Libraries in a World of Permanent Connectivity," First Monday, vol. 14, no. 1, 2008; and Dempsey, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Libraries."
  36. Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Timothy J. Dickey, The Digital Information Seeker: Report of Findings from Selected OCLC, RIN and JISC User Behaviour Projects, Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2010; Elizabeth Pickard and Firouzeh Logan, "The Research Process and the Library: First-Generation College Seniors vs. Freshmen," College & Research Libraries, vol. 74, no. 4, 2013, pp. 399–415; De Rosa et al., Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership; and De Rosa et al., Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community: A Report to the OCLC Membership.
  37. This bias for Moodle in the data could be attributed to the fact that it is the CMS used at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and students who talked about technology in their classes would have to talk about or at least mention Moodle.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Helena Francke and Olof Sundin, "Negotiating the Role of Sources: Educators' Conceptions of Credibility in Participatory Media," Library & Information Science Research, vol. 34, no. 3, 2012, p. 173.
  40. Laura Saunders, "Faculty Perspectives on Information Literacy as a Student Learning Outcome," The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 38, no. 4, 2012, p. 231.
  41. Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, "'I find Google a lot easier….,'" pp. 289–300, and David White, "The Learning Black Market," TALL blog, September 30, 2011.
  42. OCLC Research, “Max Klein Named OCLC Research Wikipedian in Residence” [http://oclc.org/research/news/2012/05-22.html], OCLC.org. An early case study on these efforts was provided by Ann M. Lally and Carolyn E. Dunford, “Using Wikipedia to Extend Digital Collections,” D-Lib Magazine, vol. 13, no. 5/6, 2007. Information professionals seeking guidance on how to get started should consult the GLAM Wiki portal.
  43. Dempsey, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Libraries."
  44. Pickard and Logan, "The Research Process and the Library," pp. 399–415.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Mary Ann Harlan, Christine Bruce, and Mandy Lupton, "Teen Content Creators: Experiences of Using Information to Learn," Library Trends, vol. 60, no. 3, 2012, pp. 569–587.
  47. Helena Francke and Olof Sundin, "Negotiating the Role of Sources: Educators' Conceptions of Credibility in Participatory Media," Library & Information Science Research, vol. 34, no. 3, 2012, pp. 169–175.
  48. Saunders, "Faculty Perspectives on Information Literacy," p. 231.
  49. Connaway, Dickey, and Radford, '"If it is too inconvenient…,'" p. 179–190.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Kurt Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers, Harper, 1951.
  52. Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science; and Pamela Shoemaker and Tim P. Vos, Gatekeeping Theory (New York: Routledge, 2009).
  53. Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science, p. 186; and Shoemaker and Vos, Gatekeeping Theory, p. 80.
  54. Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science; and Shoemaker and Vos, Gatekeeping Theory.
  55. Pickard and Logan, "The Research Process and the Library," p. 408.
  56. Ibid., p. 403.
  57. Ibid., p. 403.
  58. Connaway and Radford, Seeking Synchronicity.
  59. Nick DeSantis, "On Facebook, Librarian Brings 2 Students From the Early 1900s to Life," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 6, 2012.  Joe McDonald’s Facebook page is currently available along with Leola Lewis’s page.
  60. Brian Mathews, Think Like a Startup: A White Paper to Inspire Library Entrepreneurialism, white paper, The Ubiquitous Librarian, April 4, 2012.
  61. Jean Hiebert and Shelly Theriault, "BLASTing the Zombies! Creative Ideas to Fight Finals Fatigue," College & Research Libraries News, vol. 73, no. 9, 2012, pp. 540–569.