If you build it will they come? They will if you build what they need

If you build it will they come? They will if you build what they need

Eileen Abels

Which information services and resources should be offered and how should they be packaged and delivered? What technology should be integrated into library and information services? If you build it, will they come?

Answering these and other questions about service provision requires input from information users. Offering services “just because” or attempting to adopt a new technology or product into an organization is costly both in terms of the expense of the new technology or resource, and also in time spent designing or modifying the service or product, training, related expenditures for supplies and material, space, and marketing efforts.

Whether in a library, information center, competitive intelligence unit, or market research center, understanding users’ information preferences and information behaviors and translating those preferences and needs into user-centered services can save organizations money, enhance productivity, and quality of work.


SLA emphasizes the importance of evidence-based decision-making in both the Competencies for Information Professionals (www.sla.org/content/learn/comp2003/index.cfm) and the SLA Research Statement. The SLA Research Statement defines evidence-based practice as “consciously and consistently making professional-level decisions that are based on the strongest evidence of what would work best for our clients.” (www.sla.org/content/resources/research/rsrchstatement.cfm).

User feedback can be obtained using a variety of data-gathering options, including anecdotal evidence from conversations with users, usage statistics, document analysis, focus groups, and surveys. However, beginning with a review of existing research may save unnecessary data-gathering efforts and will help target questions to pose to users. In their article about evidence-based practice, Brice and Booth (2004) conclude that a review of published research will help save information professionals’ time. The article describes a case study in which evidence was used to better understand the information needs and information behaviors of a specific community. On the basis of this understanding, innovative solutions were sought and implemented.

User involvement must begin early in the process to shape information services offered. In his article “The Technological Challenges of Digital Reference,” Jeff Penka of OCLC warns information professionals to keep the user in mind, rather than the function: “It becomes critical for libraries to understand the current technological landscape and to have an articulate vision of the customers or patrons they intend to serve. Without this clarity, technology–rather than vision and needs–may end up driving change” (www.dlib.org/dlib/february03/penka/02penka.html).

The rest of this article describes a case study in which a survey was designed to gather data from clients and prospective clients for a specific community of information-seekers to develop and modify services.

Understanding Your Users

At the University of Maryland, College Park, a team formed in an effort to better serve the faculty and students at Robert H. Smith School of Business (RHS). The team included two business librarians, a faculty member at the College of Information Studies (CLIS), and students at both CLIS and RHS.

In the summer of 1998, RHS provided funding for the initial development of the Virtual Business Information Center (VBIC), a website that provides access to information resources and services through a one-stop shop information portal. While VBIC has evolved over time, the overall intent was to guide users through business research by providing access to commercial databases, free authoritative websites, and pointers to valuable print resources arranged by topic. The “information center” went beyond the notion of a digital library by emphasizing assistance and access to librarians and library services as well as to the collection.

The concept of the VBIC was based initially on a review of the literature, which helped construct a picture of the information behavior of business school students. Bell (1998) noted that MBA students were “Web centric,” using only Internet sources for business research. Similarly, Morrison and Kim (1998) reported that business school students used free Web resources more than any other type of resource. In general, business school students wanted authoritative information quickly and easily, preferably in an electronic format.


Interaction with the RHS students substantiated the findings in the literature and added more insights. The business librarians at UMD noted that many business school students came to the library or used library sources and services as a last resource, after spending hours on the Web and not finding what they needed. Part-time students reported difficulties accessing the UMD subscription databases.

Several questions emerged about service delivery:

* Would RHS students use a Web site developed by librarians over their preferred search engine? If so, what kind of support should be provided on the website and what kind of information do they need?

* Would RHS students consult a librarian via instant messaging or “chat” utilities?

In early February 2002, the business information team designed and administered an electronic survey to MBA students to learn more about the users.

The survey consisted of 23 questions divided into four parts:

* Part 1. Seven questions about conducting business research.

* Part 2. Eight questions about types of information used and means of accessing information.

* Part 3. One open-ended question about ways librarians have assisted or could assist in business research.

* Part 4. Six multiple-choice questions relating to demographics and logistics as well as one final open-ended question.

We crafted all questions to solicit data useful for the development of information services offered to the business school community. Particular attention was paid to VBIC and chat reference service.

At the time, there were 450 full-time and 663 part-time MBA students. We sent group e-mails to all full-time and part-time graduate students with a link to the survey. The survey was available for a two-week period; a reminder e-mail message was sent after one week. To enhance the response rate, we entered respondents into a drawing for small prizes.

By the end of the survey period, we had received 243 usable responses out of the possible 1163, giving a response rate of 21 percent, a respectable return for an electronic survey in a business school. Interestingly, the sample represented a higher percentage of part-time and first-year students. Many times, clients with a message are those who respond to surveys. The part-time students had difficulties accessing the commercial databases and said so in their comments. Incoming MBA students wanted to have a competitive advantage by accessing valuable information resources.

The survey results–particularly responses to the questions below–provided insight into actions to take to develop the VBIC and offer chat reference.

Question 1:

Would the RHS students use a Web site developed by librarians over their preferred search engine? If so, what kind of support should be provided on the Web site and what kind of information do they need?


* The majority of respondents use a search engine to launch their business research. A small percentage used VBIC or search a subscription database to begin their research and only 37 percent of the respondents had used VBIC. Only 3 percent said they consult a librarian to begin the research process; 24 percent of the respondents had not tried to access UMD databases, and of those who had tried, 38 percent encountered difficulties. (See Figure 1.)

* 52 percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they would consider using a website created by a librarian to launch their business research.

* 67 percent of the respondents conducted business research from home or work.

* Nearly all of the respondents needed company and industry information, with more than three-quarters of them needing financial information and statistical data. (See Figure 2.)


The information use profile of RHS students matches the goals of the VBIC. The respondents indicated a preference for remote access to resources. The types of information needed were already included in the VBIC’s structure but other less-used information was also available. Respondents wanted assistance in database selection and the development of search strategies. The use of UMD databases was not as wide-spread as desired and the use of VBIC was low. It was apparent that problems in accessing UMD databases needed to be addressed.


The team decided to continue to develop the VBIC. The homepage was redesigned to emphasize the types of information needed and provide assistance in database selection and search strategy development. To help users find the information themselves once they select a database, we expanded instructions on how to use selected databases. We also developed a keyword index to databases in VBIC to help with resource selection. The business librarians began to introduce VBIC in classroom instruction. Methods of overcoming remote access issues were explored with RHS and the libraries.


VBIC obtained additional support from RHS and CLIS. An RHS faculty member joined the VBIC team and has promoted VBIC widely among students and faculty. Access to remote databases has improved through two campus initiatives. The libraries have implemented a new means of remote access to subscription databases and RHS has developed a portal that provides access to the VBIC and other applications. Usage and awareness of VBIC have increased greatly. In fall 2003, a survey conducted by the information technology group at RHS found that the VBIC was considered to be the most important application to which students needed remote access.

Question 2

Would RHS students consult a librarian via chat?


* 40 percent of the respondents had consulted a librarian yet only 20 percent of the respondents said they would seek assistance from a librarian in general. (n = 243)

* 17 percent of respondents who had not consulted a librarian indicated that they would consider consulting one. (n = 95)

* 15 percent of the respondents tended to visit a librarian in person when conducting business research.

* The respondents indicated a preference for electronic communication with librarians, either via a virtual reference desk or e-mail. Some 42 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they would consult a librarian via a virtual reference desk. (See Figure 3.)

* Respondents preferred assistance in selecting resources and in using databases but more than half of the respondents also wanted assistance in developing a search strategy. (See Figure 4.)

* Respondents were most interested in learning how to find information for themselves. (See Figure 5.)


While consultation of a librarian is not part of the general information-seeking behavior of this community, the results showed students were interested in a chat service.



VBIC now has a “Help” icon, with links to the UMD Libraries live chat service, which is staffed 5 days a week. When this service is not available, users are referred to e-mail reference. The VBIC Help page also provides contact information for the two business librarians.



The live chat and e-mail links from VBIC have generated more business questions from students. Prior to adding the links to the VBIC, the chat librarians reported no business-related questions. Between late 2002 and mid-2003, 107 business-related requests came through the chat service. The chat librarians, who are not business specialists, requested assistance in answering business questions, which led to training on the VBIC.


If You Build It Based on User Needs, They Will Come

The team at the University of Maryland sought feedback from users to help determine which services and products were most important from the users’ perspective. This included the adoption of some new technology perceived to be important to the user group. Responses to specifically targeted questions helped the team identify innovative ways of offering access to key services and resources. As expected, there was a strong indication that Web-based research technology was preferred to all other means for information access and for contact with information professionals.


In addition, there was a quantified response showing which types of information students needed most, so emphasis could be placed on resource availability in such areas as company and industry research. The results supported the decision to focus on virtual solutions, including online assistance and Web-based tools like VBIC, and to expand chat and e-mail reference, which has shown corresponding growth. Thus, a focused attempt to gather user data helped the team to build a tool and services to which users would come.

Figure 1:

How Do You Begin the Research Process?

Percent (n=160)

Search the Web using a search 69%


Use the Virtual Business 17%

Information Center

Search a favorite database 10%

available through subscription

Consult a Librarian 3%

Figure 2

Type of Information Percent of


Company Information (n=227) 96

Industry Information (n=234) 93

Financial Information 87


Statistical Data and 75

Demographics (n=183)

News (n=161) 66

Product Information (n=154) 63

General Business Information 59

(accounting, management,

etc.) (n=143)

Rankings (n=121) 50

Biographical Information 33


Other (n=30) 12

Figure 3:

Means of Contacting the Librarian

Might Use Preference

(n=161) (n=161)

Use a virtual reference 68% 21%


Send an e-mail message 65% 16%

Talk in person at the 46% 13%

business school

Talk on the telephone 47% 10%

Talk in person at the 47% 7%

UMD Library

Would not consult a N/A 34%


Figure 4:

Type of Help

Percent (n=160)

Selecting resources 78%

Using a database available 78%

through the library

Developing a search strategy 61%

Figure 5:

Preference for Delivery of Answer

Percent (n=157)

Learn how to find the information 55%

for themselves

Receive the answer to the 22%


Receive suggestions on resources 22%


Bell, Steven. (1998). Weaning them from the Web: Teaching online to the MBA Internet generation. Database. 21(3), 67 +.

Brice, Anne and Andrew Booth. (Update June 24, 2004). Consider the Evidence. http://www.cilip.org.uk/publications/updatemagazine/archive/archive2004/june/update0406a.htm

Competencies for the Information Professional of the 21st Century. Revised edition June 2003. http://www.sla.org/content/learn/comp2003/index.cfm

Morrison, J.L. and Kim, H. (1998). Student preference for cybersearch strategies: Impact on critical evaluation of sources. Journal of Education for Business, 73(5), 264-268.

Penka, Jeff. (Feb. 2003). The technological challenges of digital reference. D-Lib at http://www.dlib.org/dlib/february03/penka/02penka.html

Putting Our Knowledge to Work: A New SLA Research Statement. June 2001. http://www.sla.org/content/memberservice/researchforum/rsrchstatement.cfm

Eileen Abels (eabels@umd.edu) is associate professor at the College of Information Studies and Lily Griner (griner@umd.edu) is a business information specialist for reference/instruction at McKeldin Library, both at University of Maryland, College Park.

Maggie Turqman (MTurqman@ngs.org) is a senior librarian specializing in business intelligence at the National Geographic Society.

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