A Survey Experience from the Academic Library Trenches

Cheryl Hoover, MSLS, Distance Learning Librarian

Megan Thomas, MLS, Reference Librarian

Montana State University Billings Library


The necessity for library administration to conduct user surveys has increased during recent times by the need to make more data-driven decisions. Factors driving Montana State University Billings (MSUB) use of library user surveys include: campus-wide strategic planning efforts, including alignment of the library’s strategic plan with the over-arching campus plan; changes in library resources and services; increases in number of online students; requirements for regional accreditation reports; demands for limited financial resources; and the need to make more effective use of library resources.

Libraries excel at sharing information. While every library has its own situation, sharing results from a recent survey of MSUB students provides information to other academic librarians concerned about how college students use and value library resources.  Additionally, libraries may be interested to know what changes were made at MSUB Library based on survey results.

Background Information

Located in the largest city in the state, Montana State University Billings, home of the Yellowjackets, noted a fall 2012 enrollment of 5,081 students, with 68 percent of these students attending full-time.  Over 62 percent of the student body is female with an average age of 25 years (MSU Billings, 2013). MSUB has five colleges that offer education and training for Associate, Bachelor, and Master Degree programs. The colleges include: Arts and Sciences, Education, Business, Allied Health Professions, and City College, which is located west of the main campus and focuses on two-year degree programs. MSUB leads the state in offering online classes with more than 240 classes available online.

The MSU Billings campus has two libraries. The primary library, known affectionately as the Temple of Knowledge, is located in the heart of the main campus. A small branch library resides at City College and is staffed by two part-time library clerks. Staff in the main library includes the Library Director, six full-time librarians, and five full-time para-professionals. The main library is open 83.5 hours per week during the regular academic year, and the City College library is open 45 hours per week.

The library’s past experience in conducting user satisfaction surveys is limited. From 1994 to 2000, a few consumer behavior and perception studies were done by students in a marketing class on behalf of the library. In 2002 and 2004, general campus surveys of transfer and graduate students were conducted and included one or two cursory questions regarding the library. The library surveyed 100 percent of students, staff, and faculty using LibQUAL in 2006. The LibQUAL survey provided valuable information; however, participation was considered poor at 12.5 percent given the library’s financial investment. The response rate to the LibQual survey was not unusual. According to Hernon and Altman (2010), LibQUAL response rates tend to be between 12 and 22 percent (p. 89). The low response rate may be attributed to the survey being emailed to students at new campus email accounts rather than their preferred email accounts. Many students were unaware of these new email accounts, unable to log in, or simply not in the habit of using them. Another reason for the low response rate may have been the time-consuming nature of the survey. Anecdotally, some participants told library staff that they found the survey complicated. Most recently, a self-administered web survey of 100 percent of the faculty was conducted in March 2012. The response rate of this survey was 26.4 percent.

Other than these previous attempts to survey library users, a user satisfaction survey of students had not been conducted in at least a decade. In the past, information on user feedback was gathered through suggestion box and anecdotal comments. Usage data was collected through database reports, gate counts, interlibrary loan statistics, library instruction data, reference tallies, and circulation statistics.  As a student-centered institution, the library was overdue in conducting a student satisfaction survey.

Literature Review

Libraries of all types enjoy a rich history of tracking data and conducting surveys to obtain information on resource usage and user satisfaction. Qualitative and quantitative survey data results provide information to help guide decisions related to the current and future allocation of library services and resources. Using a web-based survey instrument can be a cost-effective method to obtain information from users; however; the value of that survey data varies based on how and if that information is ultimately used. Sharing survey results and action items with library users can foster good will.  Brown, Yff, and Rogers (2011) found that patrons appreciated having their opinions asked and they valued knowing the results (p. 24). Surveying sub-groups of library user populations provides additional useful information to library administrators.  For example, surveying distance students provides insight into how these students use the academic library’s resources remotely – or don’t use them. Pitts, Coleman, and Bonella (2013) reported that library services were not adequately promoted or utilized by distance students at Kansas State University (p. 74).  Surveys provide important baseline data for institutions and follow-up surveys demonstrate trends.  Creating action items based on survey data and informing library patrons and other constituents of outcomes can create an invaluable dialogue between the library and the users.

Library literature supports the widespread use of library surveys with a wide array of articles written to report different survey goals and experiences. Looking back, Berger and Hines (1994) reported that detailed survey data assisted Duke University librarians in their efforts to plan for the future library and target specific services to specific user groups. Regularly surveying library users provides important qualitative and quantitative data that can be used to improve library services and resources. Evans (2000) supports this by stating, “A regular assessment program can be helpful in gauging the service population’s attitudes about services and collections” (p. 38). According to Hiller (2001), the University of Washington Libraries found that regularly conducting large-scale triennial surveys was the best way to assess the effectiveness of library service programs and support efforts for faculty and students. The results from these surveys have been key to the library’s successful transition to becoming user-centered and provided influential information in the campus political arena (p. 605-606). Carefully constructing survey questions to identify what information is desired and from whom, creating action items based on survey data, and informing patrons of outcomes can increase the value of the survey experience for the library and the university as a whole. While the findings of many surveys go unreported in the library literature, the value of conducting user surveys is validated again and again in the literature and important lessons can be gleaned by libraries with varying levels of survey experience.


Following the successful response to the faculty survey in March 2012, the Library Director decided to conduct a similar survey for all students. During the spring semester of 2013, the MSUB Library surveyed students about services and resources in the library. The survey was created and administered through the affordable online service, SurveyMonkey, and consisted of ten questions. There were nine multiple choice questions, which included one demographic question, and a final open-ended question for a free text response. Five of the multiple choice questions also included the option to add comments.  The survey questions focused on the following categories: online library services and resources, on campus library services and resources, marketing, and free text comments. A full list of the questions and results can be found in Appendix A.

The survey was e-mailed to 5,274 students, the entire student population, at their preferred e-mail address. The survey was confidential, but the students had the option to include their e-mail to be entered into a drawing for a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2. This e-mail entry was not connected to the students’ survey responses. The survey was open for two weeks in March, with the initial invitation e-mail to participate and a follow-up reminder e-mail sent after a week. Information about the student survey was posted on the MSUB Library Facebook page. The library staff used the students’ preferred e-mails, sent a reminder, offered a prize, and marketed the survey in hopes of improving the response rate.


After surveying 100 percent of the student population, the number of survey responses received was 714, which is a 13.5 percent response rate. Recognizing that this is a relatively low response rate, library staff were nevertheless pleased with the response rate considering it was the first student survey to be conducted in a number of years. The campus as a whole prefers, but has had difficulty meeting, a 25 percent response rate goal. Therefore, the library’s survey response rate was not unusual. Of the 714 respondents, 84.7 percent self-identified as undergraduate students. This percentage included undergraduate students who take classes only online, only in-person, or a combination of the two. The other 15.3 percent of the respondents were graduate students also enrolled in online, in-person, and in a combination of the two.

The survey questions were broken into four categories, the first of which was online library services and resources. Fifty-four percent of respondents visited the library website more than five times in the last year, while 36 percent visited the library website more than 11 times in the past year. The two top resources used on the library webpage were the course reserve and the electronic databases, but students expressed interest in an online chat service. While 40 percent responded that the website was easy to use or very easy to use, there were also quite a few comments regarding the difficulties with the website (see Appendix B). The percentage of students that accessed the website from a mobile device was fairly low; however, staff had often observed students using mobile devices within the library. With the apparent popularity of mobile device usage by students, staff concluded that the website should have a mobile friendly version.

In regards to on-campus library services and resources, 48 percent of respondents visited the library in-person more than five times in the last year, while 38 percent visited the library on campus more than 11 times in the past year.  The three most popular activities in the library were using the computers, studying alone, and studying with a group. These activities were expected to score highly due to staff observations of prime study space being consistently used, as well as full computer labs during peak hours. The free text comments from students showed a trend of student interest in onsite tutoring and an increase in technology available to students (see Appendix B).  In the past, anecdotal information or observations were the primary way that library staff determined how students used the library on campus, so the statistics and student comments created much stronger proof on which to base decisions.

One of the last items the survey focused on was marketing of library services and resources. Course instructors proved to be strong library proponents as 76 percent of students indicated that they had heard about library services and resources from faculty. The library website and other students also ranked highly as marketers of library services and resources at 60 percent and 42 percent respectively. However, it became apparent in the survey, through student comments, that library staff needed to increase marketing efforts. Some students outright stated that the library needed to market their services more. Other student comments pointed to this through the obvious lack of knowledge the students had about library resources and services. Some students even stated that they were not aware of a certain service or resource until they saw it mentioned in the survey itself (see Appendix B). Again, student comments provided hard evidence for library decision-making.


The results from this survey provided valuable benchmark information regarding student use and satisfaction of library services and resources. From the survey results, a list of action items was developed. These action items provide direction to the Library Director and staff and help focus the use of library resources. The action items include:

  • Create a mobile friendly website
  • Offer additional technology‐rich group study areas
  • Enhance electronic collection with additional ebooks and ejournals
  • Simplify the main library homepage
  • Expand the LibGuide collection to create user‐friendly research portals
  • Initiate online chat service for students
  • Explore a potential collaboration with the writing lab for onsite tutoring
  • Visit with ASMSUB (student government) about launching a student advisory group

To date, several action items have been completed and others are currently in process.  The library now has a mobile-friendly website, new technology-rich group study areas, and has acquired new e-book and e-journal collections. Action items currently in process include a redesign of the library homepage and expansion of the LibGuide collection.  In the near future, library staff will begin exploration of the remaining action items. Although not a specified action item, library staff has also increased marketing efforts through social media outlets as well as the student newspaper. To continue a loop of feedback, survey results have been reported to some library constituents, including student government and campus administration. Library staff is continuing reporting efforts to other constituencies.

The Library Director is satisfied with the process of the online survey but seeks to improve response rates. Plans to conduct future surveys on a regular schedule are currently in discussion with ideas on how to increase response rates being generated. For example, adding another email reminder to prompt participation, adding multiple prizes to increase interest, and avoiding overlap with other campus surveys could improve response. While the response rate was less than optimal, there was still value in the responses received. Through a handful of questions and minimal expense, library administration was able to ascertain a wealth of information about student library use patterns, needs, and desires. As stated previously, a consistent survey schedule can create a dialogue between the library and the students. Now that there is baseline data, future surveys can identify improvements and resources or services that still need development. Since student input is now emphasized as a part of the foundation for future changes to library services and resources, those changes are more student-centered and meaningful.


Berger, K. W., & Hines, R. W. (1994). What does the user really want? The library user survey project at Duke University. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 20(5/6), 306.

Brown, C., Yff, B., Rogers, K. (2011). The library survey: Friend or foe? Lessons learned designing and implementing user surveys. Kentucky Libraries, 75(1), 22-25.

Evans, G. E. (2000). Information needs assessment. in Developing library and information center collections. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Hernon, P., & Altman, E. (2010). Assessing service quality: Satisfying the expectations of library customers. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Hiller, S. (2001). Assessing User Needs, Satisfaction, and Library Performance at the University of Washington Libraries. Library Trends, 49(4), 605.

Montana State University Billings. (2013). Institutional research: Quick facts 2012-2013. Retrieved from http://www.msubillings.edu/InstitutionalResearch/default.htm#Student_Demographics_

Pitts, J., Coleman, J. & Bonella, L. (2013). Using distance patron data to improve library services and cross-campus collaboration. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 18(1), 55-75. doi: 10.1080/10875301.2013.800014

Appendix A

Spring 2013 Student Survey 

Background Information

  1. Academic Status this semester
A Undergraduate student taking in person classes only 32.77%
B Undergraduate student taking online classes only 17.65%
C Undergraduate student taking both online and in person   classes 34.31%
D Graduate student taking in person classes only 3.08%
E Graduate student taking online classes only 6.44%
F Graduate student taking both online and in person classes 5.74%

Online Library Services and Resources


  1. In the past 12 months, how often did you visit the MSUB Library website?
A Never 13.48%
B 1-2 times 15.31%
C 3-5 times 17.70%
D 6- 10 times 17.28%
E 11 or more 36.24%
  1. Which of the library’s website resources have you used? (Please mark all that apply)
A Course Reserves 36.83%
B Electronic databases to retrieve articles 70.40%
C Interlibrary Loan 16.57%
D Power Search 29.18%
E Ebooks 17.85%
F Online tutorials 7.65%
G I have not used the library’s website resources 17.14%
H Other Text Comments (14 commented)
  1. How would you describe navigation of the library website?
A Very easy to use 14.85%
B Easy to use 39.75%
C Neutral 24.19%
D Difficult to use 7.21%
E Very difficult to use 0.57%
F I have not used the library website 13.44%

Comments: _______________________          Text Comments (65 commented)

  1. Have you accessed the library’s website using a mobile device? (i.e. Smartphone, iPhones, iPads, iPods, Other tablet computers, etc.)
A Yes 26.63%
B No 73.37%
  1. Please rank the potential online services by order of importance (1 being the most important and 3 being the least important):




A Online chat help 51.40% 29.60% 19.00%
B Brief recorded online help tutorials 36.62% 48.68% 14.71%
C Longer (30- 60 minute) online research workshops 12.06% 21.76% 66.18%

Physical Library Services and Resources

  1. In the past 12 months, how often did you physically visit the library?
A Never 24.04%
B 1-2 times 12.94%
C 3-5 times 14.79%
D 6-10 times 10.10%
E 11 or more 38.12%
  1. What do you do while in the library? (Please mark all that apply)
A Study alone 58.93%
B Study with a group 36.74%
C Use computers 65.42%
D Use KIC scanner and/or photocopiers 20.03%
E Get research help at the Ask Here desk 15.71%
F Check out academic books 24.50%
G Check out popular books 11.10%
H Check out DVD’s 15.85%
I Check out a Kindle or Nook 1.59%
J I have not been to the library in the last 12 months 22.62%
K Other Text Comments (42 commented)
  1. How have you learned about library services and resources? (Please mark all that apply)
A Library’s website 60.09%
B Class instructors 76.25%
C Other students 42.06%
D At the Ask Here desk in the library 18.31%
E Library information tours 15.59%
F Librarian visits to class 15.16%
G Campus TV monitors 5.87%
H Signs in the residence halls 5.44%
I Facebook 4.43%
J Other Text Comments (44 commented)
  1. I wish the MSUB Library would offer additional online or in person services and resources to students, such as _________________________________________________________________

Text Comments (320 commented)

  1. This survey is completely anonymous. If you would like to enter your name in a drawing for a Google Nexus, please fill out the following information. Your survey comments will not be attached to your personal information, so they will remain anonymous. (One entry per student)

Name ____________________________________________

Phone ____________________________________________

E-mail ____________________________________________

Appendix B

A Sampling of Student Text Comments

Regarding the Library Website:

“It is easy, but that is because I have had several tutorials on how to use it. It may be difficult for a person who is brand new. However, there is always someone available to assist with that if you are trying to search or access the website.” -Survey Respondent

“You have to know where things are in order to find them. I took a class where I learned how to use the library website. I shouldn’t have to do that.”  -Survey Respondent

Regarding On Campus Use of the Library:

“I print out all my assignments at the library. Don’t know what I would do without it.” -Survey Respondent

“Use the television downstairs for connection with laptops for study groups. Too bad there is not more of these resources available currently.” -Survey Respondent

“Tutoring in call classes not just some through tutor.com.” – Survey respondent

“Tutors on Saturdays…” – Survey respondent


Regarding Marketing of Library Services and Resources:

“I haven’t learned anything about the library from any source.” –Survey Respondent

“It would be great if there was a single webpage for newer students that explained just how many amazing resources the library has.” –Survey Respondent

“I would like to know all of the resources available to students. For example, I had no idea I could check out a Nook or Kindle until I took this quiz. Are there things such as scanners available? Etc.” –Survey Respondent


One thought on “A Survey Experience from the Academic Library Trenches”

  1. Is it worth using blog sites for inbound links? I was told they are useful but unsure if
    they still work post penguin
    Will surely be coming back, its a great site!

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