End-User Focus group

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Student Focus Group 28th November 2011
Ten students attended the focus group held at York University Library. They represented post-graduate and under-graduate students across a range of different disciplines from the humanities, social scienc
e and science. The students were asked a range of questions to examine their motivations to use e-books, methods of used for discovery and location of e-books and the techniques used to evaluate them. There were specific questions aimed at examining the way metadata is used to locate e-books. Students used e-books from a number of different sources including free ebooks from sources such as Googlebooks and purchased e-books from the University library collections.


In terms of motivation or reasons to use ebooks the key theme is access in an environment where students see library resources are very stretched and not always able to meet their demand.

For discovery the key tools are reading lists. Some subject or general search may take place using services such as Google and Google Scholar. Then the library catalogue is used for as a *finding* tool to locate the appropriate copy--print or electronic.

Student are very aware of the need to get good quality, authoritative content. Metadata can be useful therefore in evaluating material. Students used Information such as citations (Google Scholar), dates (v important) , indexes, table of contents. When evaluating a resource is isn't simply the 'right answer' to problem that needed, students felt that the resource also needed the right approach/feel..


Students valued the addition of ebooks to the range of resources available to them, two-thirds of the students used e-books to a large degree . A humanities student said ‘I need to use a lot of books and so need to use lots of resources. It’s easier to keep research going if resources are electronic, it allows me to jump from one book to another’. A science student felt that on the whole, books are out of date before they are printed, having a good stock of e-journals is essential, however ‘At York, the course follows text books and so I need to access these regularly but the library do not have enough copies’ and so electronically available copies would help’. At York a number of e-books are available for short-term access, one student felt that ‘It’s great to have the books, usually it’s for a few hours but it’s so useful’, however another student commented that ‘The books I want tend to be on hold or lost – but then 4 hours is not long enough. It’s easier to have an e-book, I don’t need to request it to be returned’.

Only one student referred to having a portable e-book reader. ‘Ever since I got a kindle it’s a huge help and for University it’s incredible. I love the library but it’s not good for all current student books – on Amazon it’s great, you get the option to buy books.’

Also students commented that they used e-books because it is easier to find e-books using Google type resources with keywords. They indicated that this was a significant benefit as they felt they could only use the library catalogue once they knew the title of books. They also found it useful to be able to search on chapter titles.

Access was also identified as a motivating factor ‘It’s easier to have e-book as I can look inside it from home’.
Students also noted that whilst e-books are often Windows friendly – they are not MAC friendly (with LION) – so there can be technical frustrations.

Student use e-books for research purposes and in particular to read around the subjects they are researching ‘I use e-books for my research – I search the catalogue for keywords in XXXX studies’. In science ‘I use e-books to back up what I find on Wikipedia when I don’t understand the subject’. A final year undergraduate students only used them when researching for her dissertation ‘I don’t need them for all the usual under-graduate reading as there are books in library’. Another under-graduate found the library not always sufficiently stocked in some of their subject areas ‘the books I want are never there so I sit at home and use Googlescholar/Google-books as they are there and free for general essays and also reading round subjects.’ E-books were generally felt to be a useful solution to replacing physical books in the library. Other students also use online textbooks when at home ‘to teach myself’.

There were also problem with e-books, ‘I cannot print from them and it’s hard to read on the computer when you need to read half the book’.

In scientific research it was identified that e-journals are the key resource, however they noted that ‘if I can get it online I can keep it online – making my research more concise and compact’. This linked to a number of comments advocating the benefits of having resources available online. These included being able to exploit resources such Onenote [programme on Windows for screen clippings] to capture and organise resources, portability especially for students who have to travel and sharing data/resources with other students. ‘I make annotations using One Note so I can annotate them and keep them all together, it also has the date/time I pasted it in, the web page etc.’ Mendeley was mentioned as a software package used to store references.


Students identified a variety of places they would use to discover information, however all students were in agreement that they started with Google. Most students would then move to the library or use specific subject-related sites. ‘Most of my research is connected to organisations such as the UN so I go to their libraries/websites and use their pdf.

There were frustrations about access to information particularly not having access to the right thing at the right time. Students, particularly International students, liked to be able to access information from home and having portable information which they can use whilst travelling. ‘I don’t want to borrow it and carry round a huge textbook – so it’s much easier with e-book, especially as I can search on keywords to find the information quicker’. It was also recognised by students that they do not need to access the full content of a book usually they only need to use a small amount of information in books.

A post-graduate student described how she recently found an e-book ‘I went onto library catalogue and the Metalib site to search databases and resources in this area. This came up with list of journals and books, I found one I liked –the title sounded perfect - then I clicked on it to find out if it was at York but wasn’t. I copied the details into Google and found it on FREE Google books’.

At University of York many of the taught science/health post-graduate courses follow textbooks ‘the lecturers have often written the textbook – so I need to follow this so I need the textbook. All the students rush to library for the textbook but books are limited, so I get the e-book in the library’.

Discovery of specific information can be difficult in e-books. An accountancy and business student identified that she often needs to find out about specific strategies or mathematical/statistical techniques. This information is found in books rather than journals but it can be hard to find a book which explains this clearly.

A history undergraduate stated that he discovers resources by using the ‘... core texts given in bibliography to start and then link from here. In history especially I will use the footnotes and journey back to original sources to find how the authors got to their conclusion’. He added that ‘I need to use original sources – so I follow through paraphrases and citations to get hold of the original sources – in history I need to use really old material – so I used COPAC to find where the sources are. Last time they were too far away – so then I used Googlescholar and found it there, out of copyright’ – the full digitised text was available.

One under-graduate humanities students said her ‘tutor provides a huge pack of notes in languages so I don’t need to search in the library for the basic course materials are provided... I will need to do additional research for seminar/presentations.’ The student tends to stick to course pack other than very specific information requirements.

The library is introducing specific reading list software in the near future which will make it easier for students to link from the virtual reading list directly to the full-text e-book or e-resource. In Economics the e-books are available directly from the reading lists – ‘I get immediate access to the e-book straight away without needing to search. Some of them can only be download a page at a time or I can get 24/48 hour access to the book’. An under-graduate student said they get large reading lists (every two weeks), but whilst the books on the reading list are in the library very few are e-books. Some students get reading lists for each week of the academic year.

Recommendations were sometimes used usually by research students, but this was not common. Students suggested that they may recommend books to other students if they think it is relevant to their specific research project. Otherwise there was only a limited amount of sharing recommendations. Students were more likely to make informal negative recommendation such as ‘I read it don’t bother with that one’. One student mentioned Webshare page on the discussion board [they think] which some students use to recommend books – otherwise groups of friends will talk/text each other about recommendations but this was not universal. Face-book groups were mentioned where students will post interesting things about relevant TV programmes/videos but not usually books.

In summary: Students usually only use library if they have the precise title. It’s a finding tool not a discovery tool. Students use other sources to discover resources, then use the library catalogue to find them. Students were not aware that the catalogue has a search engine, just title searching. One student stated that she used another library system to combine the 2 search methods. The students would like a Google like approach to finding library resources. It’s hit and miss doing a subject search on the library catalogue.


Science students mainly uses textbooks for their subject, one student commented that ‘it’s important to see the first few pages to see how it is written. I need to know I can engage with it? The style of the book is vital to me’. She also needs to know if it scholarly enough or written at the right level especially when discovering resources from Googlescholar. She also uses the citations to also check the level of the books. Another student stated that ‘I evaluate books by electronically flicking though the book and looking at the table of contents, it is a useful way of deciding if I want to use the books. In medicine it’s essential that you get on with the book (style and approach, presentation of information) so I really need to flick through the book’.

Students said they conduct further research by drilling down through the citations to find other resources with good provenance. The quality and the provenance is really important to all the students – peer-reviewed etc.

It was noted that students are looking to see if the book summarises the argument and critically reviews the content and argument – adds value to the knowledge they already have.

Recommendations & reviews

Students were asked if they would create user recommendations and would they use them if they were available. Initial feedback suggested this would not be useful however the student who is a Kindle reader said ‘I try to tap into the readers view point and what they use the books for. I use the comments from other readers and I would like to see this in the University – I would find this a useful experience’. She was encouraged to do this by using the Kindle system.

When asked specifically about using something equivalent to the Amazon review methods students felt they would use it and contribute if it was easy and fun to do. A couple of students are doing this in an informal way and one student was sharing recommendations with a student at another university. Other students felt opinions from students at other universities are unlikely to be relevant to them unless the recommendations came from students on specific courses closely aligned to University of York and especially where the reviews were made by world experts or linked to courses of very high reputation.

One student suggested that user recommendations would be very useful for finding out how to do something like a specific equation in maths – ‘I would like a textbook to explain this simply and easily and I found it impossible to find a book which was useful ... lecturers are useless at recommending this... so it would be really useful to find out how to do it. A nice concise piece of information on how to do this... So a rating scheme on the library catalogue would be really useful. If it was easy to do this then it would be really useful. If, when you return the book, it said do you want to leave a comment – I might do. It might be opinionated but would be useful.’

User recommendations were useful when students were purchasing their own copies of books. ‘I want to look at other people’s opinions – I look through every comment on the book before I decide to buy. Even if I don’t like the book I will look at it if lots of other people refer to it then I might use it – if it’s other people’s citations or other students recommend it’. Generally students would not bother with recommendations for a library book – ‘I would if I was going to buy it but not for a library book’. Book reviews are essential for history students ‘I would look for reviews from experts in the area’ – but he was not likely to look at reviews from other students. Book blurbs and product information was felt to be useful.

Purchasing books and PDA

Students were not aware of purchasing issues relating to libraries and e-books. They asked if it is cheaper to buy an e-book than to buy several copies of the print book. It was explained that whilst students are effectively getting ‘free’ resources the library is actually paying a significant fee for them. Enabling e-versions of textbooks is particularly problematic and costly. University would like to give students access to relevant materials and not pay for the non-relevant things but it is a struggle for them to do this with the current purchasing models. Students said they would be happy to press BUY to make an ebook purchase for the library– but they would want to know it was relevant before bought it.

It was suggested that the library should look at data on what students want to use and use the data from this to make purchasing decisions, but this should not just be a popularity contest i.e. 10 votes and we buy this.... some books are critical but only for a few students therefore a critical mass would never reached for purchasing but the title would be critical.

One student helpfully suggested that in the management school a textbook is now producing new editions half-way through the course with few changes to it.... so the students don’t see the need for the library to keep buying lots of copies of the new edition.

Students felt that they should not be asked to pay for information specific to their course. ‘I don’t like to pay – I would like to find free information – if I need to pay for e-book I am concerned whether this will be of use to me.’ Students agreed that they would resent having to pay for course-related books –‘I expect them to be here’.

Students are also purchasing e-books in other countries. One International post-graduate explained how she bought a book whilst in Korea ‘I found an e-book when I needed a book in Korea, it was a very heavy book so it cost a lot of money to post so I chose to download the e-book’ she accessed a ‘Blackwell equivalent store’ in Korea, searched their resource, ordered the e-book version and then downloaded it. ‘I knew about it by keyword searching Google, I looked at table of content and description to find out what is appropriate and used major online book stores.’

Students identified that there is still a market for second-hand textbooks. Ebay is a good market for books, they can be bought and sold on afterwards. One student noted that ‘If I’m going to pay money I would prefer to buy the physical book’. International students would prefer to buy the e-book version especially when they have to travel. By choice they would prefer a brand new physical book and keep it. If they couldn’t then they would use the library’s book or would get e-book. At the moment it is best to have actual books in science areas rather than e-book etc. A medical/health student noted that Kindles/e-books versions cannot be used on the ward/hospital. Also laptops are not always welcome in class (may be face-book) whereas the hardcopy of the book is seen as a good thing.

Metadata - what's important to the user

Book reviews in e-journals are good for finding the relevant e-books. Past/present e-journals are searched to find e-books.

Students said they don’t pay attention to subject headings.

Date of publication is really important (unanimous). Print version might be the latest version (not e-book) getting the most recent version is important.

Indexes really important to find information – Table of content are not always best way of finding specific information once the book is located, using index is quicker and gets you to the right page quickly.