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End User Survey of Federal Depository Libraries
Posted On September 26, 2011
An Aug. 25, 2011 NewsBreak focused on a report by Ithaka S+R, “Modeling a sustainable future for the United States: Federal Depository Library Program’s network of libraries in the 21st century.” That same week, the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) released another report on the depository libraries, “FDLP users speak: The value and performance of libraries participating in the Federal Depository Library Program,” presenting the results of a survey conducted by Outsell, Inc. from Oct.10, 2010 through March 4, 2011. (The report can be downloaded from the FDLP website.)

Both efforts were designed to inform GPO and participating libraries about the value of Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) program membership and “to determine baseline outcomes-based performance measures.” (If you have to convince libraries currently participating in the program to continue doing so—not to mention make the public aware that the program even exists—you’ve got a tough road to hoe.)

In sharp contrast to the limited contributions by FDLP librarians to the Ithaka “models” effort (that gathered data during about the same time period, late 2010-early 2011), the survey of users conducted by Outsell garnered more than 3,300 responses from nearly 550 depository libraries (out of about 1,220 depository libraries in the U.S. and overseas territories). According to the contractor, “submissions were well distributed both geographically and across different library types.”

Another element that sets this report apart from the Ithaka effort is the presentation of results from the survey, along with a clear methodology for its development and conduct. As I commented in the earlier NewsBreak, the Ithaka report was dense and recommendations confusing. (Admittedly, Ithaka’s charge to “develop practical and sustainable models for meeting the primary objectives of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) in an information environment dominated by digital technologies” and “explore what is possible” is considerably more of a challenge than an end-user survey, but options for the future deserved a better presentation than they received.)

The survey conducted by Outsell was designed to serve as a support for GPO’s strategic planning effort as well as for libraries participating in the depository library program. It presents an understanding of users’ perceptions as to the value and performance of the libraries, depository materials and services today, serving as a baseline assessment. The survey instrument can be used in the future to assess how future changes to the libraries and services affect users and usage.

Survey Findings

Outsell designed and conducted “a web-based survey in order to collect information from end-users concerning their purposes in accessing FDLP information resources, to what extent they were able to fulfill their purposes, their overall level of satisfaction, the problems or barriers they may have encountered, and their suggestions for improvements.”

Some of the findings are striking. For example, about 30% of respondents stated that they normally use (or, if an infrequent user, heard about the survey) in Michigan (10.9%), Florida (10.5%), and New York (9.3%). It’s unclear from the report whether the placement of the survey announcement played a role, but the excellent University of Michigan’s Documents Center “Explore Government Documents” link, recently moved to GovDocs Research Guides, was likely a contributing factor. (In my mind, a “best practice” that paid off for users around the country, if not the world. I know that I used it whenever I was stumped as to where to turn within the government to get at some report or data series. Also, it confirms the finding that users want, and will use, online tutorials that explain how government works.) The GovDocs Research Guides can be accessed at

More than 75% of respondents use the service more than once a year, over half use the service more than five times a year, and nearly one quarter (24%) use the service “very frequently” (i.e., more than 12x per year). What this tells us is that if you know about the service, you use it (and presumably find it useful to do so). The challenge is to understand why those who perform similar work/research do NOT use the depository libraries. Where do they go for this type of information? Do they know about the depository libraries and choose not to use them, or is it a case of their not knowing about them. According to this study, several respondents “did not realize this program even existed” and encouraged greater publicity/outreach. If survey respondents say that they were unaware, what can be said of non-users?

The majority of respondents (58%) use a single library to access government documents and about the same percentage (59%) say that they heard about the FDLP because it’s in their academic library. Academic research (65%) and education (40%) are the primary reasons cited for using the collections, followed by “personal” (33%). (It would be helpful to understand what “personal” means in this context so that we could compare the results to the 2010 Pew Internet study, Government Online.)

Respondents indicate that for most categories of materials accessed, they use a mix of print and online. The types of materials most important were historical materials (67% of respondents indicating that they accessed this category of resources most frequently), statistics (66%), and current information (64%). Appropriations/budget materials were used less frequently, with only 40% respondents indicating that this was important material to them.

Online access to documents (51% “frequently” + 34% “sometimes”) and library websites, including postings, blogs, and wikis (50% frequently + 33% sometimes) were the FDLP services most frequently used. When not using a FDLP library, respondents say that they use Google or other search engines, the internet, and federal agency websites more often than they contact a federal agency or use a library not designated as a depository. So (1) making materials accessible online, and (2) increasing the likelihood that search engines will “find” them are crucial.

In terms of user satisfaction, respondents indicated that use of FDLP information resources and services provided key information needed (79% of all respondents), fulfilled the purpose(s) for which they turned to the FDLP (75%), and added value to their work (60%). Barriers to using FDLP resources and services appear to be difficulty finding the content desired (57% indicated this to be a problem online and 52% in the catalog), information not available in the format desired (46%), and gaps in the library’s holdings (44%).

There were findings that should be a call to both the GPO and depository librarians. For example, half of all respondents wish that more materials would be available online; more than one-third (36%) think that online tutorials to help users understand government activities and nearly as many (31%) indicated that they’d like online collections to include more older/historical materials. A majority of respondents seek email alerts or notifications of delivery of information (61%) or website postings (60%). Fewer mentioned prints, including photocopies (45%), or attachments to email (40%).

Nearly one-tenth of respondents used the text box to offer comments. While some strongly voiced their complaints with the FDLP, others noted helpful staff. According to the respondents, what is needed is greater awareness as to what is available. Responses by state and type of library (e.g., academic, public, special) were presented, as were counts for each survey question (Appendix B).

How Should the FDLP Proceed?

By combining the findings of both reports, depository librarians (and the GPO itself) will note several clear marching orders for future service development and enhancement. What will happen at the depository librarian meeting on Oct. 20 is anyone’s guess, but it will take more than one meeting to devise a strategy for the FDLP that will take us through the century. And perhaps we don’t need a single strategy that stretches 100 years, but some flexibility in the way in which the libraries, GPO, FDsys, and federal agencies work together to inform the public.

Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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