The Challenge of Diverse User Needs in Academic Libraries

October 12, 2016 Lucy Whitmarsh

173929681.jpgIn July 2015, Wiley Exchanges published "Print vs. digital textbooks and the challenge of meeting student needs," a blog post by Elizabeth Lorbeer, Library Director at the Western Michigan School of Medicine. The post explored research around the affordability of textbooks and the link to student outcomes. Elizabeth concluded that for e-textbook programs to be successful for all learners, being able to switch between print and digital formats would be key.

This concept of "all learners" is one that resonates. As academic institutions cope with the influx of new courses, increasing fees, and students crossing borders to obtain the education they want, there are more expectations than ever on their resources.

As highlighted in the NMC Horizon Report 2015 Library Edition, a growing focus on a positive experience is influencing web presence and digital resources in libraries. In 2014, the first journal focused on library user experience was published, while 2015 saw a conference in the UK and an online digital workshop on the same subject.

Weave: Journal of Library User Experience suggests that we should be talking about UX “in any other content where it might be useful." For libraries this will be any aspect of the user’s interaction and perception of the service, including the physical environment, the support and the resources available.

In a 2015 survey of almost 500 librarians across the globe, Wiley discovered that the academic libraries surveyed support an average of 16,500 students across undergraduate, postgraduate and research degrees. There are continued challenges in meeting the needs of these patrons, the most basic of which is providing resources that support the variety of available courses -- but what about the diversity of the users themselves?

In July 2015, commissioned reports by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) addressed discrepancies between different groups of students and their outcomes. Students may be segmented by their course, background, method of study, ethnic group, disability or special learning needs. With emerging research from the UK, South Africa and the US suggesting that universities who engage their students with library resources see improved academic outcomes, understanding how best to do this could be crucial.

An area of particular interest in these reports was the reviewing of support for students with disabilities. In 2013/14 the Higher Education Statistics Agency (UK) showed that over 6% of undergraduates enrolled in the UK were in receipt of Disabled Students’ Allowance. For these 88,000 students, “resources are a common issue affecting the happiness of disabled students." How, then, can libraries tailor resources to these students without alienating or distancing them from the other 93%, while navigating budget challenges?

Looking to current trends in academic libraries reveals some potential solutions. A short term impact trend, as identified in the 2015 Horizon report, alongside user experience, is the prioritization of mobile content and delivery. Mobile technology continues to develop, and a recent Flurry report indicates that time spent on mobile devices has increased by 117%. The impact on studying is that “library patrons’ expectations of when and where they should be able to access content and services” (Horizon) have been transformed.

A similar report by Arup explored trends around learning models and highlighted how “digital technologies can now provide innovative opportunities to enhance teaching, learning, research.” As students become increasingly demanding of resources that suit the mobile lifestyle they have settled into, is there a way to combine this drive for digital while supporting students with disabilities?

One suggestion made was in digital resources, specifically textbooks. Digital resources are easy to access, share and store. For those with a physical disability, the portability of a digital text can make studying more accessible. The design of a digital resource can make full use of supportive hyperlinks and definitions, allowing complex content to be presented in a more accessible way. If a universal design for learning (UDL) approach is used, core content can be “scaffolded to meet the cognitive levels of individual learners."

The task of meeting the needs of a diverse user group is not something that can be easily answered, but it is clear that as libraries take on the challenge of User Experience we will continue to see discussion and debate around how best to solve it.

Does your library have a strategy for meeting diverse needs? Would you like to share your views on Wiley Exchanges? Leave us a comment below or tweet us at @WileyLibInfo.

Image credit: Nikada/iStockphoto

About the Author

Library Services, Wiley //

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