Students, Google and libraries

Danish public libraries have always considered support to students one of their most essential tasks. In cooperation with the research libraries and other libraries of higher education it has been a highly regarded task to create an information infrastructure for anyone seeking a formalised education or for anyone seeking information and knowledge of their own accord. It has been mentioned in Danish library legislation as an important part of the purpose of the public libraries since the 1920s. It is underlined in the international library association’s (IFLA) policies, and it is a main substance in the Danish National Library Authority’s tasks in the years to come. All examinations of library patrons’ behavioural pattern in terms of usage, point to the fact that the public libraries hold a very important position, which is further confirmed in a new survey where about 60% of all users indicate that they use their public libraries as education libraries.

Historical background
Despite these facts, this very major task has not been discussed in any substantial and constructive context over the past 25 years. Rather, the discussion has tended to concentrate on which library types were in fact responsible for the service in question, and has been used primarily to promote an extension of the libraries that cater for middle-range higher education, as well as to a certain extent to agitate in favour of the state spending more resources on an expansion of the public libraries’ service to university students. At the same time, the public libraries have spent a great deal of time developing the cultural and social aspect of their activities, while the numerically heavy part of the activities, support for students in higher education, has been allowed to dwell in comparative obscurity.

During the latter part of the 1990s, technology changed this situation. At a stroke, virtual access to both the public and research libraries’ catalogues and the possibility of reserving and ordering material brought about a muchincreased traffic of interlibrary loans between the individual libraries. Many libraries began to see themselves as a kind of ‘postal service’ for materials to borrowers from other libraries, and transport arrangements came under severe pressure and represented a cost increase in the overall service. The users accepted the new possibilities with great enthusiasm which threatened to topple the popular digital services, until the government approved a national transport scheme between the larger libraries, thereby ensuring a viable logistic and economic level.

At the same time the Danish research libraries – in a hitherto unprecedented collaboration – developed a major reorganisation of their services from physical products to digital services. Within the umbrella organisation ‘Denmark’s Electronic Research Library’ (DEFF) license terms were negotiated with a speed and to such an extent that Danish research libraries’ digital services to students and professors seriously multiplied in just a few years. In the first instance it was research libraries within the fields of natural science, commerce and health that exploited digitisation, but libraries within the humanities, social sciences and art soon followed suit. So much so that today the most advanced research libraries offer 70-80% of their information as digital downloads.

It is not difficult right now to predict a development which means that within just a few years Danish research libraries will have completed a difficult readjustment with the result that the material they provide for their users will to an overwhelming extent be digital and there will be very few physical products from established collections. This has the effect that even more material than before will be produced in English/American, that material in French/German/Spanish will be very limited and that material in Danish and the other Nordic languages will be almost non-existent. But there are obviously very great logistic advantages in the reorganisation, and it has meant that research libraries and education libraries are at the absolute forefront as far as service to students is concerned.

Students, Google and libraries
This situation is clearly reflected in the study of the entire area that the Danish National Library Authority instigated and which researchers at the Royal School of Library and Information Science have conducted during spring 2005. The study included about 1,700 students chosen at random, and it charts their library usage as well as how they use the Internet for searches. The result is presented in the report Students, Google and Libraries (Reports from the Danish National Library Authority, 4, Copenhagen 2005) by professor Niels Ole Pors, Royal School of Library and Information Science and is also available at the Authority’s homepage at

The main results show a number of students using the digital services of the research and education libraries, and they express great satisfaction with the quality of assistance and guidance these libraries have provided. They see libraries as much more open than was the case before, both physically in so far as the digital offer is always available, but also that libraries thanks to changes in the physical exterior are able to offer proper work stations and places for studying. And thanks to a massive centralized effort they enjoy the benefit of licenses in great numbers; licenses can be obtained at fairly reasonable costs because they are ‘campus licenses’, limited to a group of users defined as students or staff at an educational institution.

The examination of the public libraries as support libraries to some extent shows similar results. For example, almost 60% of all the respondees say that they use their local public library as a (supplementary) education library, i.e. to a very limited extent the only education library and in the rest of the cases the public library as supplement to an actual education library. It is particularly students from shorter or medium-length types of higher education who indicate this. Of students from long-cycle higher education it is especially the students from the humanities who say that they use a public library. As a curiosity this in fact means that it is mostly female students who use the public libraries, which in my opinion should not encourage anyone to think that women – as opposed to men – are slower in accepting and using a new service. But only that the number of women students from the humanities and doing medium-length higher education courses is considerably higher than the number of men.

Up till now, the public libraries’ have taken it for granted that their service was superior to that of the research libraries. Service is here taken to mean the contact with the users and the readiness (and possibility of) answering the users’ questions. This part of our self-image we shall have to change. In general the students in the survey express greater satisfaction with the service in the research libraries. This may in part be due to the fact that the research libraries’ collections, both physical and virtual, are better equipped than the corresponding public library collections, but the conclusion of the survey is in fact that both question and answer have concerned the actual service.

There is some indication that ‘normal questions’ at the reference counter are considered not quite sufficient by the students, and that what they are really after are more lengthy and thorough consultations. Something like a consultancy service that can be booked in advance and will last a bit longer that the 3-5 minutes normally allocated at a reference counter. At the same time the survey poses a number of questions in relation to the public libraries’ materials. These are still very much characterized by products in physical form, and very soon we shall have to be able to offer as varied and extensive a number of licenses as the research libraries. The immediate stumbling block here is that a public library cannot just be defined as an educational institution, but also as a local authority with all its inhabitants as potential users. This makes it hard for the license suppliers to fix the price at a reasonable level. So here is another problem that needs working on.

Another aspect of the public libraries’ self-image is likewise hitting the dust. This has to do with opening hours and physical framework that have always been considered more generous than those of the research libraries. There has been a considerable upgrading of the research libraries’ physical frames, and opening hours on the physical premises have also been considerably extended, and it has become possible to book appointments for consultancy. Generally speaking, therefore, research libraries appear more modern and more open than the public libraries, and the shift of technology contributes to that.

Public libraries as education libraries One important question, which the survey does not deal with, remains: Are the public libraries ready to take on the assignment of being education libraries? Will the local authority financed and local authority regulated public libraries take on the task of being a supplement to the state-financed and state-regulated courses and research and education libraries? The future municipal reform in Denmark will mean that nearly all forms of education from upper secondary school at one end to higher education at the other will be subordinate to the state. A more stringent distribution of tasks between the sectors than we have known so far is on the cards. And one can easily imagine local authorities who, when asked, would reject the task in favour of a more softly formulated ‘public-enlightenment’ task that in itself does not require a major shift of technology.

The question is also whether the students would accept this answer and the consequences such an objective would have for the building-up of materials and service. In the ‘education-heavy’ parts of the country there is little indication of that. Here the students have ‘voted with their feet’ by also using the public libraries’ digital service to a great extent – however inadequate it may have been. And this is where the public libraries are extremely dependent upon the students’ use of them for study purposes to help define the library task and put together materials and service. This is also where the need for a substantial development of digital service areas (licenses) is most noticeable.

The education-heavy areas are naturally related to the concentration of universities and institutions of higher education. The metropolitan area, including Roskilde, is the largest centre, the Århus area comes next, followed by Odense, Aalborg and Esbjerg. And one might perhaps divide the country into one or two more areas. Here the local councils might experience the most severe pressure, and in my opinion they cannot refuse to service students, partly because the concentration of educational institutions is a great bonus for the local area, and partly because it would mean a downgrading of the public libraries in the area in the longer term. It is very probable that the question will not be raised politically, one must assume that the tradition of supporting higher education and being a supplement to the state libraries, will in itself be strong and viable enough.

A programme for action
If this should be the case the public libraries will be very busy – especially in the education-heavy areas. A technological change is imperative – and it has to happen soon – which will provide the users with a suitable digital service on a par with that of the research libraries in the area. In concrete terms it is a question of successful negotiations with the license suppliers on conditions that make it possible to offer a qualitative selection of licenses at a reasonable price. The negotiations going on at the moment within the framework of DEFF might well serve as an example and much useful experience is available there for the asking.

At the same time the task must be given higher prioritisation internally in the relevant public libraries. It is essential that pedagogical competencies are developed locally, and that a change is introduced in the level and intensity of service. More emphasis must be placed on long-cycle services, which much not, however, develop into a situation of ‘doing the job’ for the student, but rather a question of guidance in relevant searching in primarily digital materials. This cannot but influence the ‘normal’ level of service which must to an even greater degree than up till now be adapted so that it can be handled by other groups of staff or by the user himself.

The collaboration and coordination of the service between the public libraries on the one hand and the research libraries on the other must be further developed, so that the user experiences a ‘seamless’ library service whichever library he/she approaches. This includes collaboration with medium-length higher education libraries on the acquisition of physical collections.

Finally, it is important to outline a common marketing strategy for digital service to students. The survey revealed a very rudimentary knowledge by the students of the libraries’ (both public and research libraries) digital services. Many described it as something of an arbitrary event if they happened to come across one of the major electronic library services, like or the DEFF portal, and it is quite obvious that digital services that are not available as physical realities need regular marketing in a new way. This also means that one must establish close contacts to the educational institutions and draw the attention of the teachers to the libraries’ digital services as an important source of information and knowledge in an educational context.

The latter part is extremely relevant to the whole library sector which, apart from the above-mentioned problems for the public libraries, on the whole is facing the ‘googlification’ of information searching. By this I mean that a number of students have up until now used, and via the survey indicated, that their information searches might well just consist of using one of the major search engines on the Internet, first and foremost Google. In this way Google appears – on the face of it – as a direct rival to the library sector.

The survey does not support this supposition. It is true that many students indicate that they use Google and consider it a useful search tool. But apparently the use of Google encourages using the library, both physically and digitally. The students who say that they use Google are also the students who are the most diligent users of the library services, and there are in fact very few students who rely entirely on information taken from Google, while many students supplement with the qualitatively more reliable searches that are available through the libraries.

…In this way Google appears – on the face of it – as a direct rival to the library sector photo by Nils Lund Pedersen

Service to students in higher education is thus a very pragmatic reality in Danish research and public libraries. Nearly 60% of Danish students state that they use the public library as a supplementary education library. The task is no doubt thoroughly rooted in the Danish library world. But the public libraries are lagging behind, first and foremost because their digital services are not sufficiently complete and of the standard required. Particularly for public libraries in 5-6 education- heavy areas it is therefore of the utmost importance to concentrate on the further development of their digital services. And it is also a matter of urgency to establish collaboration with research and education libraries in the area about marketing of the services available. So that the users can experience the library as a seamless service whether they approach a public or a research library.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Chief-librarian, Copenhagen Public Libraries