Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall 2003:  Volume 7, Issue 3



Paths to Understanding     


Robert S. Nelson, Long Island University Brooklyn Campus

Vera Stepchyshyn, Long Island University Brooklyn Campus


Nelson is an Assistant Professor and the Library Instruction Coordinator. 

Stepchyshyn is an Assistant Professor, a Reference Librarian, and Chair of the Library.



This article discusses the information-seeking behavior of students in a large urban university and the impact that behavior can have on the development and delivery of instructional and reference services.



This study was conceived to be a tabulation of student responses to information-needs.  What developed was a realization of where we, as reference and instructional librarians, fit into the academic lives of our students. The information we received brought to light something that we had long suspected and secretly feared.  As a whole, our perception of the importance of the library in the academic lives of our students was miscalculated.


In this article, we endeavor to discuss both the information-seeking behavior of urban university students as well as the challenge that behavior poses to our own concepts of instruction and reference services.  This small amount of paper cannot match this herculean task, but it should serve as a platform for discussion and further research.


One of the original foci of this project was to be an examination of culture and ethnicity and those factors’ impact on information-seeking behavior.  What we uncovered was that quantum changes in information-seeking behavior are a pan-cultural pan-ethnic phenomenon.  While the nuances of ethnicity and culture may play some role in how a student approaches an information need, the studied behavior saw no clearly defined ethnic or cultural boundaries; making this issue truly an issue for librarians interested in servicing a multicultural population. [1]   For the purposes of this project we chose to define information-seeking behavior as the process by which students evaluate the information-needs of a given assignment and then develop a list or series of resources that they feel would be the most useful in fulfilling those needs. [2] 


The Study



This study was conducted at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University (LIU-BC) over the course of the Fall 2002 semester.  LIU-BC is a large urban university with 199 registered degree and certificate programs.  Of the 11,157 full and part-time students enrolled, 5,399 are undergraduates, 2,658 are graduate students, and 3,100 are non-credit students.

Forty-nine percent of our students are Black, Non-Hispanic.  Sixteen percent of the student population is Hispanic and 23 percent is White, Non-Hispanic.  The remaining percentages are distributed among American Indian and Alaskan Native as well as Asian and Pacific Islander.


Seventy-one percent of the student population is female and 29 percent are male.


Ninety-three percent of the student population receives financial aid and has an average gross adjusted family income of $29,013. [3]



In Summer 2002, a decision was made to explore the students’ reactions to research assignments.  The information derived from this exploration could then be used to inform the delivery of reference services as well as the delivery of instructional sessions.  


A survey that presented the students with a variety of research and information gathering situations was developed.  Questions that sought to parse their immediate reaction to a research project and other information-needs were included. (See Appendix)


Once the survey was developed, a printed version was distributed at various locations across the campus at heavy-traffic times.  The purposeful omissions of direct references to the LIU-BC library were used to distance the library, as an institution, and achieve a higher level of objectiveness in the responses. [4]


In addition to the print surveys, an electronic version of the survey was developed.  The survey was then distributed via the bulk-email system. This survey followed the same form and question style as the print version but offered the students the ability to complete the questions online and submit the survey electronically.  Seventy-five electronic surveys were returned and 100 print surveys were collected.


Over the course of a month, the print and electronic surveys were collected and tabulated.  The tally of completed surveys included only those surveys that were deemed completed satisfactorily. [5] 



Of the 175 students surveyed, 32 percent ranked the search-engine Google as the most useful resource for providing information for a research project or assignment.  Thirty-one percent ranked books most useful and academic/college libraries were at a tie with the search-engine Yahoo! at nearly 26 percent.  Similar trends were traced by a question that sought to determine library usage and its correlation to information-seeking behavior.


Forty-nine percent of the respondents believed Internet access is the most useful service provided by LIU-BC.  Thirty-one percent felt that electronic resources were most helpful and nearly 19 percent believed that reference librarians were helpful.  Library training garnered a no opinion response from 27 percent.


When researching a subject they are unfamiliar with, 29 percent of the students noted that they would locate the information on the Worldwide Web first, 28 percent would ask a professor first, 11 percent would ask a friend or a peer and less than three percent would ask a librarian.  


When asked to rank the usefulness of a variety of sources, a majority of the students ranked a search-engine as their first resource of choice.  Other popular choices included textbooks, reference librarians, and statistical reference books.


Additional data was collected regarding who was responsible for the teaching of research skills.  This responsibility seems to fall squarely on the shoulders of the disciplinary faculty or high school teachers and only a cursory number of students attributed their research skills training to a librarian. 


Worldwide web usage is a daily event for a large percentage of the students surveyed.  Nearly all respondents classified their most-accessed area of interest as entertainment. 


When asked about their library usage patterns, almost 23 percent of the students surveyed visit the library for research purposes once a month, 33 percent visit the library once a week, 13 percent visit the library daily, and 19 percent never visit the library. 


Thirty-four percent of the students visit the library on a daily basis followed by 23 percent weekly, 11 percent monthly, and 10 never visit the library for purposes other than research.


Demographically, the survey respondents were predominately between the ages of 15 and 23, who have completed two to three years of college.  Most students noted that they were employed part-time.  Ethnically, the majority of respondents were African-American/Caribbean American followed closely by students of Hispanic descent. [6]




The perception of the university library as the first location of choice for research is no longer true. [7]  Students in today’s urban university are looking more towards search-engines for their information-needs.  When presented with any information-need, even a scholarly one, students will fall back on what they have become accustomed to or believe to be the best possible solution.  While it is commonly felt that this blind faith in the abilities of search-engines may be traced back to the influence exerted on them by the media, there is a dearth of research on that subject.  Whatever the reason is, the information-seeking behavior of LIU-BC students between the ages of 15 and 23 clearly indicates a reliance on search-engines for their research needs.     


The library itself as a resource to support research is no longer a commonly perceived notion.  Our most valuable asset, according to the students, is our high-speed Internet connections, which are used primarily for the accession of email and entertainment.  Library books and the librarians are ranked low in terms of helpfulness throughout the survey.  A large percentage of the respondents owned a computer and reported having Internet access at home; the almost exclusive use of the library as an Internet and computer access location may be a function of the socio-economic status of the student body.  With nearly all the students receiving financial aid and earning less than $30,000 a year, it would be reasonable to infer that the cost of high-speed Internet access is a luxury to most students.


This paints an interesting portrait of how students react to an information-need and what that behavior means to a reference and instructional librarian.


Implications for Reference


For many reference librarians, the perceived survival of the library is threatened by the prevalence of the Internet.  This fear is due to their inability to picture the function of the library in any way other than a gateway to books and journals.  The results of this study should encourage reference librarians to accept changes in information-seeking behavior and begin to adapt.


As was made clear in the study, libraries and librarians are not viewed as important sources of information for many university students. The majority of students use the library’s access to the Internet.  With the proliferation of electronic resources, many students lack any exposure to traditional print journal indices and card catalogs.  This exposure is needed to establish these resources as vital elements in information-seeking behavior.  Without that exposure, it may not be possible to convince them to use these resources.  A different approach must then be explored.  


Today’s university students are, as highlighted in this study, a point-and-click generation who relish the notion of one-stop information shopping and who tend to rely on one or two research tools. [8]  Instead of fighting this phenomenon’s impact on information-seeking behavior, librarians need to channel their energies into understanding student expectations and begin to encourage effective information-seeking behavior. 


Once a new paradigm of student information-seeking behavior has been identified, new services and delivery patterns can be oriented around them.  The organization of information and sources in a library should reflect the new information-seeking processes.  One important means of addressing this change is through the design of the library’s homepage.  A well-planned homepage can play a significant role in increasing students’ perception of the library. If search-engines are what students identify with most, then a library’s homepage should speak to this identification and offer information accession points that are styled along the lines of Yahoo! and Google. [9]  If students do not utilize the library in person, an electronic-reference librarian could conduct the reference interview.  


Traditional forms of reference services may also be redefined to better serve students.  The static reference librarian may not be as useful as a librarian who is active and visible in the public service area.  Another redesign could focus on the establishment of individualized consultations, between a librarian and student. A librarian could be assigned as a consultant for specific assignments and students, on an appointment basis, could meet with the assigned librarian to discuss how to obtain information.  


Regardless of the innovation, reference departments should begin to explore a redefinition of reference services.  It is apparent that reference services must use students’ information-seeking behavior as the impetus for evolution.  In order to remain relevant, reference services must keep pace with actual users’ information-seeking behavior and not what librarians wish that behavior to be. [10]


Implications for Instruction


In light of this data, a major re-assessment of the introductory library sessions has begun.  In their original conception, these sessions were to be the platform on which all other information literacy sessions were based.  Their planned function was the teaching and practical application of data accession skills with an emphasis on the analytical side of data selection. 


To countermand the prevailing perception of the library as an Internet way-station, the introductory instructional sessions now focus on exhibiting the differences between databases and search-engines, the determination of authority for websites, and the function of an academic library.  Using classes such as the orientation seminars, the instructional program now runs a series of sessions that are aimed at promoting the library rather than the teaching of information literacy skills. [11]


While certainly a challenge to our perception of library instruction on the university level, it is needed in order to provide the student with a reasonable opportunity for academic success.  It is impossible to successfully impart the importance of critical analysis of peer-reviewed articles to students who believe that AOL and Yahoo! are the best sources of information available.  This rethinking of primary library instruction is not without a degree of difficulty. [12]


Students are drawn to what has worked for them in the past.  Therefore, when a library instruction session challenges that belief this consideration must be taken into account.  Constant reinforcement of the library as a learning support mechanism must occur both during the session and afterwards.  During sessions, every effort should be made to highlight library resources (databases, indexes, reference librarians) and to parallel those sources with common information-seeking tools.  Sessions that conduct simultaneous searches of both commonly used search-engines and the library’s database are effective means to concretize these ideas.  Post-session reinforcement can take on a variety of forms.  The use of research portfolios is a very effective tool.  It allows a student to discuss how the information was obtained, what criterion was used in information selection, and how the library was utilized during the information-seeking process.


In addition to a change in approach when teaching, the instructional librarian must reassess their role with regards to the students’ information-seeking behavior.  While there will be many instances in which the instructional librarian is performing the task of skill-training, that librarian should also be prepared to address socio-economic constructs that influence a student’s approach to an information-need.  There may also be a need for the introduction of more clinical training sessions that are extra-curricular and are aimed at promoting library resources.


The impact of this research on library instruction is not so much grave as they are fortuitous.  Once there is a certain understanding of how a student approaches an information-need, then a truly effective model of instruction can be developed.




To many academic librarians, the findings of this study are not shocking.  University librarians have long suspected a shift in student behavior has occurred.  It was this suspicion that drove us to this subject matter.  Now, we have replaced some of that suspicion with appreciable data.  That is not to say that research in this area is exhausted.  Further investigation into the socioeconomic factors that serve as the root of many of these behaviors is strongly recommended. 


It is also recommended that librarians begin to adjust their perceptions of the profession, their responsibility to their students, and the notion of “traditional” library services.  This evaluation could be the most difficult of all because it is not a matter of policy, funding, or technology:  it is a matter of identity.


This study has forced us to examine who we believe we are to our students and what services we believe we provide.  As with any major renovation, the end results are not immediately apparent, but it is clear that a re-thinking of certain aspects of instruction and reference services is essential to the maintenance of the library as a student-centered institution.




We would like to acknowledge the assistance of Julia Atterman in data-collection and tabulation, the campus Faculty Media Resource Center for generating the electronic survey, and the support of the library’s administration.



Appendix:  The following is a sample of the survey that was distributed to gauge the information-seeking behavior of students at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus.


1)             Using the ranking system listed below, please rate the following resources’ ability to provide information for research projects or          assignments.


1 = Most Useful                     2 = Useful                   3 = No Opinion                  4 = Not Useful                    5 = Useless


                                __            WWW.YAHOO.COM                                             __            Books     

                                __            Encyclopedia Britannica                                          __            Academic Journals

                                __            Public Libraries                                                        __            Magazines

                                __            Television News Broadcasts                                     __            WWW.GOOGLE.COM

                                __            Electronic Databases                                                                __            Newspapers

                                __            College/University Libraries                                     __            Peer-recommendations

                                __            InfoTrac                                                                  __            WWW.AOL.COM


2)             How many research projects are you required to complete in the course of one (1) academic year  (September to May)?  Circle the response that applies to you.


a.         1-5

b.         5-10

c.         10-15

d.         15 +


3)             How often do you visit a college/university library for research?  Circle the response that applies to you.


a.         Once a day

b.         Once a week

c.         Once a month

d.         Never


4)             How often do you visit a college/university library for other reasons (email, quiet study, etc.)? Circle the response that applies to you.


a.         Once a day

b.         Once a week

c.         Once a month

d.         Never


5)             Use the following scale to rank the source/services provided by your college/university library.


                1 = Most Helpful                2 = Helpful                 3 = No Opinion    4 = Somewhat Helpful    5 = Not Helpful


                                __            Reference Librarians                                                                __            Print Resources

                                __            Library Training/Instructional Sessions                    __            Electronic Resources

                                __            Internet Access                                                        __            Student Aids


6)             Using a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the source you would use first and 10 being the source you would use last) please rank the following selections in the order in which you would use them to complete the following assignment:


                                                Write a 10 page essay on the use of genetic engineering in the fight against cancer.  You must include information from at least one (1) book, one (1) journal, and one (1) alternative source.


__            A World Wide Web (WWW) page that mentions genetics

__            An Internet Search Engine such as Google or Yahoo

__            Course textbook or notes

__            Students’ papers

__            A branch of the public library

__            A college/university library

__            Electronic or Online Database

__            A reference librarian

__            The CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) homepage

__            A statistical reference book


7)             Who was responsible for teaching you how to conduct research?  Circle the response that applies to you.


a.         Friends and peers

b.         High school teachers

c.         School librarians

d.         College professors

e.         Self-taught

f.         College librarians


8)             How often do you use the World Wide Web (WWW) to obtain information? Circle the response that applies to you.


a.         Daily

b.         Weekly

c.         Monthly

d.         Never


9)             What type of information do you access most often?  Circle the response that applies to you.


a.        News

b.        Entertainment

c.        Research

d.        Email


10)           When presented with a subject you are unfamiliar with, using a scale of 1-6 (1 being the first place you would go and 6 being the last place you would go) please rank how you would pursue locating information on that subject.


__            Ask a friend or peer

__            Ask a professor

__            Ask a librarian

__            Locate information on the World Wide Web

__            Locate a book on the topic

__            Locate a periodical (magazine, newspaper, or academic journal)

                that has an article on the topic


11)           Using a scale of 1-5 (1 being the most important and 5 being the least important) please rank the following questions in order of importance when selecting an information resource.


                                __            How easy is it to access the information resource?

                                __            Where is the information resource located?

                                __            When was the information resource generated or published?

                                __            Who is responsible for the information resource? (author, publisher, etc.)

                                __            What will accessing the information resource cost?


12)           Please choose answers in each category that best describe you.


Age:                                                                                 Race/Ethnicity:


a.     15-25                                                                       a.    African/Caribbean American

b.     25-35                                                                       b.    Caucasian         

c.     35-45                                                                       c.    Hispanic/Puerto Rican      

d.     45 +                                                                         d.    Pan-Pacific/Asian

e.     No answer                                                                                e.    Other


Years of College Completed:                                            Grade Point Average:


a.        0-1                                                                           a.    0.0-2.0                             

b.        2-3                                                                           b.    2.1-3.0             

c.        4-5                                                                           c.    3.1-4.0

d.        5 +                                                                           d.    No answer


Employment:                                                                   Is English Your First Language?


a.     Part-time                                                                 a.   Yes

b.     Full-time                                                                  b.    No

c.     Self-employed                                                          c.    No answer

d.     Unemployed                                                            If No, Please Note Your First Language:

e.     No Answer                                                               _________________________________________


Do You Own a Computer?                                                               Do You Have Internet Access at Home? 


a.        Yes                                                                          a.    Yes

b.        No                                                                           b.    No

c.        No Answer                                                               c.    No Answer       


                If you have additional comments or would like to add any information you feel is relevant to the way you approach research and information gathering, please feel free to express those thoughts below.





[1]  For further review of multicultural issues in information-seeking behavior see Mengxiong Liu’s “Ethnicity and Information Seeking.” Reference Librarian 49/50 (1995): 123-134 and Mengxiong Liu and Bernice Redfern’s “Information-Seeking Behavior of Multicultural Students.” College and Research Libraries 58.4 (1997): 348-54.


[2]  This definition is an amalgam drawing on elements from previous research such as Shwu-yong L. Huang’s “The Use and Value Perceptions of Library and Information Resources by College Students.” Journal of Information, Communication and Library Science 5.4 (1999): 1-14, and Ingrid Hsieh-Yee’s “Student Use of Online Catalogs and Other Information Channels.” College & Research Libraries 57.2 (1996): 161-75.


[3]  Long Island University. Profile 2001/2002.


[4]  This approach was adopted because it was felt that results from previously conducted might have been skewed.  Nancy J. Young and Marilyn Von Seggern also recognized the importance of a non-library setting in their article “General Information Seeking in Changing Time:  A Focus Group Study.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 41.2 (2001): 159-169.


[5]   A satisfactorily completed survey may be defined as a survey in which all questions were answered according to the directions.


[6]   Although a small statistical number, the university does serve some high school students in a variety of ways.  For these students, the library may be used as a resource.  It was felt that they should not be excluded from participating in the survey.


[7]  Kathleen Dunn, “Psychological Needs and Source Linkages in Undergraduate Information-Seeking Behavior.” College and Research Libraries 47 (1986): 475-81 and James Krikelas, “Information-Seeking Behavior: Patterns and Concepts.” Drexel Library Quarterly: Foundation of Library Practice 19.2 (1983): 5-20.


[8]  Steve Jones. “The Internet Goes to College:  How Students Are Living in the Future with Today’s Technology.” Pew Internet & American Life Project.  Found at


[9]   V. Bowman. “The Virtual Librarian and the Electronic Reference Interview.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 7.3 (2002): 3-14.


[10]  Sara Fine. “Reference and Resources: The Human Side.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 21.1 (1995): 17-20.


[11]  G. S. McGuigan. “Databases vs. the Web:  a Discussion of Teaching the Use of Electronic Resources in the Library Instruction Setting.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 6.1 (2001): 39-47.


[12]  “How Academic Librarians Can Influence Students’ Web-Based Information Choices.” OCLC White Paper on the Information Habits of College Students (2002). Found at