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TL v62n2: Focusing on the User
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 Focusing on the User

Kevin Merriman, Head of Collection Management, University of Memphis 

Betsy Park, Assistant to the Dean, University of Memphis

Perveen Rustomfram, Instructional Services, University of Memphis

Damone Virgilio, Staff Development Officer, Memphis Public Library & Information Center 

Authors' Note: This program, presented at the 2012 Tennessee Library Association Conference,  was primarily a discussion with a good deal of audience participation. We attempted to make notes from the discussions and apologize in advance for omissions and/or misinterpretations. Kevin Merriam served as the moderator, Damone Virgilio presented for the Memphis Public Library & Information Center and Betsy Park and Perveen Rustomfram spoke about the University of Memphis’ efforts.


For well over 100 years, Eastman Kodak was a solid company, at one time accounting for 90% of all photographic film sales in the United States. Indeed, the “Kodak moment” was a household phrase for something to be recorded for posterity.  Kodak has recently filed for bankruptcy. What happened? Kodak ignored changes in the market, most importantly the digital camera. Although they invented the technology that was used in digital cameras, Kodak continued to focus on film. What does Kodak have to tell libraries? Quite a bit. Libraries are changing; we cannot afford to focus on microfilm when users want digital. We must focus on the user. We will discuss some approaches we have taken to find out what our users need and begin a discussion about our users.

Memphis Public Library & Information Center

We developed a survey to understand the needs and desires of its customer base (see Appendix A).  The survey was placed online and at every point of access in each of the libraries.  Just over 3800 responses were received.  While customers want as much as the library can give, a few key insights emerged: 1) people want access to technology in the form of public computers; digital content such as databases, web access, podcasts, e-books, and other downloads; and instruction on how to use the resources; 2) people want quiet, inviting spaces; and 3) people desire easy access to facilities and collections, including clear signage.

In addition to surveys, Memphis Public Library & Information Center conducted nearly 40 focus groups with a variety of stakeholders.  We met with each functional workgroup in the library, the Board of Trustees, the Friends and the Foundation, and select customers. We asked the following simple question (with a focus on collections, facilities, technology, staffing):  “We would be a better library if…” The information gained through this process was used to develop the long-range strategic plan, with ten goals that were revealed through the process (Appendix B).  Some key findings: 1) you can’t do everything.  When developing your survey instrument, it is important to narrow your focus to key areas; 2) you must have buy-in from all of your constituencies in order to make a plan work.  If your staff are not on board, you will not achieve your vision.  If you are not offering what customers ask for, you will fail to meet their needs; and 3) you must market your plan continuously.  When there are successes, trumpet them to all of your stakeholders.  Have managers frequently address the plan with staff and set expectations regarding reporting.  There needs to be constant follow-through in order to be successful with strategic planning.

The University of Memphis Libraries

We administered the LibQUAL+TM  survey for the second time in the Spring of 2010 to order to gather information on user needs and opinions of the Libraries’ quality of service. In addition, we wanted to see how we measured up against other libraries of our size.  LibQUAL+TM was developed by the Association of Research Libraries in collaboration with Texas A&M University and has been used by over a 1,000 institutions since 2000.

LibQUAL+TM is a web-based survey that measures the minimum, perceived, and desired level of service on a nine point scale. The zone of tolerance lies between the minimum and the desired levels of service. Ideally the perceived level of service should fall within this zone. The gap between the minimum level of service and the perceived level of service or between the desired level of service and the perceived level of service measures perceptions of service quality. The three main areas examined were as follows:

  1. The service provided by Libraries employees,
  2. The quality, quantity, and accessibility of information resources
  3. The quality of the physical space of the library

With twenty-seven of the forty-five questions measuring the minimum, desired, and perceived levels of service on a nine point scale, many users found the questionnaire both confusing and taxing (for the LibQUAL+TM survey see Appendix C).

Links to the survey were emailed to 1200 undergraduate students, 600 graduate students, 600 faculty, and 600 staff.  A total of 416 surveys were completed.  The findings contained no surprises. Overall, people were satisfied with the physical environment of the libraries.  Users were also generally satisfied with employees’ attitudes, knowledge, and service. Libraries’ collections received the lowest marks. There was dissatisfaction with not only the number of resources but also the depth of coverage and the variety of formats. Users felt that access to resources was also an issue.

Of all the groups surveyed, faculty were by far the most dissatisfied.  Their greatest concern was a lack of adequate resources. As we analyzed the comments we discovered repeatedly that we actually had access to some of the specific resources the faculty mentioned. Or, faculty who articulated a lack of resources were from a department whose resources were fairly robust — at least, in our opinion.  So we could not determine whether it was an actual lack of resources or a perception of a shortage because faculty did not easily find the resources on the Libraries’ website.  Depending on which one it was, our intervention or resolution would be different.

With the goal of seeking greater clarification of needs and eventually devising appropriate solutions, we decided to conduct focus groups as a follow-up to LibQUAL+TM.. Since this was the first time we had used focus groups, we consulted books such as the Focus Group Kit (SAGE Publications, 1998), and we also consulted the chair of the Marketing department at the University of Memphis. We learned that focus groups should have approximately 6-10 participants, take 1-2 hours, contain no more than 12 questions (for questions see Appendix D), and are time consuming for both participants and facilitators. The sessions were recorded and transcribed. Some of the findings included an emphasis on visual learners (faculty often incorporate YouTube and short video clips into classes); dissatisfaction with some library policies (particularly the short check-out period for DVDs); concern with the lack of staffing on upper floors; and frustration with the Libraries’ ongoing budget problems (in response, some departments developed their own libraries.) We further analyzed participants’ comments using the Libraries’ Strategic Plan as a guide.

Audience and Panelists

Other libraries represented in our session at the TLA conference reported varied success with surveys. As one person noted, surveys need to be easy for the customer to answer--check boxes and the like improve response rate. One library has done surveys over the past ten years and not seen a lot of improvement from one survey to the other. However, the surveys were useful in that they provided information not heard before. Another library reported that after taking customers’ responses to the Provost, construction funds were found to improve the library building. The library then launched a “Your response made a difference!” campaign.  Another library reported doing focus groups and primarily receiving feedback about how wonderful the library was. Then they had a commercial company create a survey. However, this survey was complicated and hard to fill out and generally failed. This led to a discussion about identifying particular methods to gather information and the need to be focused in approach.

Concentrating on smaller issues or specific services is a good idea and more fruitful for eliciting good feedback. One Electronic Resources Management Librarian spoke about drowning in usage statistics and raised the issue of interpreting statistics. Statistics may indicate popularity, not the actual value of the resource.  Statistics gathered by the various vendors are often not comparable, although some attempts have been made to provide comparable data (EBSCO, Sweets, Serials Solutions). Often a cost per use figure can be calculated, but purchase cost does not include costs associated with staff time. The cost per click may be low, because lots of people are using a resource, but this cost does not indicate that these people found the necessary information. Data should be gathered over time as it typically takes at least three years for a resource to be discovered and used. Data gathered can be both detailed and aggregated. Detailed data can lead to an understanding of use and value, but aggregate data are those presented to the decision makers. Libraries might want to administer a brief user satisfaction survey and/or staff can ask “Did you get what you needed?”

User comments in person or through a suggestion box also provide valuable information. One library uses Survey Monkey every semester and simply asks “How are we doing?” Frequently libraries receive negative feedback. This feedback is constructive in that it provides opportunities for libraries to improve their services and be more responsive. Students are rarely completely satisfied. One library’s survey asked if students were interested in working with the library. Sixty students indicated their interest but only eight showed up for a meeting. This core became a student advisory group.

It is important that the results gathered through assessment instruments be communicated to the library’s constituency (both internal and external). Information should be used in both short and long range planning and in the library strategic plan.  The plan then needs to be marketed to all users (see Appendix D for Memphis Public Library & Information Center’s Strategic Plan). Eastman Kodak made the mistake of continuing to think that their business was manufacturing film.  They needed to recognize that they were actually in the business of selling images and memories. In a similar fashion libraries should not make the mistake of thinking their business is only collecting books and materials but rather meeting the needs of their customers. We should not concentrate on film (microfilm) when our customers want electronic. We need to seek opportunities to learn more about our customers’ needs, act on the information gathered, and communicate with our customers.

Appendix A

Memphis Public Library Survey (Download PDF)

Welcome to Memphis Public Library & Information Center.  In the interest of providing our customers with the best library experience possible, we would appreciate you taking a few minutes to complete this brief, confidential survey.  It’s your library.  Help us make it the best it can be.   Thank you for your help.

Memphis Public Library Survey

Memphis Public Library Survey


Appendix B

Memphis Public Library & Information Center Strategic Plan




We satisfy the customer’s need to know.


Your place to connect, learn and grow.

The Memphis Public Library & Information Center & Information Center has delivered world-class library service for more than 100 years by providing access to relevant collections, highly trained staff, and innovative programs and services.  Thomas Jefferson said “Information is the currency of democracy.” Although the quantity of information has expanded tremendously, and our progressive modes of information delivery have increased technologically, our fundamental purpose as the bedrock of an informed and democratic society remains.  A profound example of our essential role in the community is the 2009 Memphis Poll results that indicate residents rank public libraries as the fifth most important funding priority for City of Memphis government, just behind police and fire services, public schools and sanitation.   The public library is a community institution that has no equal as a place where everyone has an equal opportunity to connect, learn and grow. 
Therefore, our strategic imperatives are to be a place where our customers:

Connect with information, each other and the community;

Learn as much as they want; and

Grow and develop life skills.


Library customer and staff feedback shaped the plan, as did Library and City of Memphis leadership with assistance from the board of trustees.  More than 3,000 customers contributed to the process via a comprehensive survey. Library staff participated in focus groups.  The results of survey and focus groups confirmed the Library’s reputation as a highly regarded organization that counts relevant collections, highly trained staff, inviting facilities, and engaging programs among its many assets.  Customers’ desire for increased resources and services also emerged, citing their requests for the following:

  • Larger Popular Library collection
  • More attractive and user-friendly Library webpage
  • Reliable internet and Wi-Fi service at all locations
  • Improved signage
  • Designated quiet/reading areas

We will use this feedback to shape future operations and budget requests.  In addition, the Public Library Association’s (PLA) recommended service responses were used as a framework for this plan.  PLA defines these service responses as “what a library does for, or offers to, the public in an effort to meet a set of well-defined community needs.”   We employed the following 10 service responses in an effort to better focus our mission, vision and resources so that we provide optimal service to our customers and the community at large:
Public Library Association (PLA) – Recommended Service Responses

  • Connect with Your Community:  Community Resources and Services
  • Satisfy Curiosity:  Promote Lifelong Learning
  • Connecting to the Online World:  Public Internet Access
  • Get Facts Fast: Ready Reference
  • Create Readers:  Early Literacy
  • Create Readers:  Succeed in School
  • Make Informed Decisions:  Health, Wealth and Other Life Choices
  • Make Career Choices: Job and Career Development
  • Stimulate Imagination: Reading, Viewing, Listening for Pleasure
  • Visit a Comfortable Place: Physical and Virtual Spaces

Memphis Public Library & Information Center: 10 Program Goals

Your place to connect, learn and grow.

Goal 1

We provide customer-focused library services.

Goal 2

The Community and government connect to share information and nurture partnerships.

Goal 3

We bridge the digital divide by providing customers access to online collections and resources.

Goal 4

Customers engage in lifelong learning and explore topics of personal interest.

Goal 5

Children enter school better prepared to read, write, listen, and communicate.

Goal 6

Students improve their chances of academic success.

Goal 7

Customers find resources to make life choices.

Goal 8

Customers find resources for job and career development. 

Goal 9

Customers read for pleasure and explore literature. 

Goal 10

Customers enjoy accessible and inviting spaces to meet and interact or sit quietly and read.

Administrative Goals


We will employ a proactive administrative model that:

  • Promotes positive customer relations in support of the library’s mission;
  • Provides systematic planning and evaluation of operations;
  • Seeks adequate financial support for capital and operational needs;
  • Allocates effective human and financial resources in fulfillment of the mission;
  • Fosters ongoing development of staff and volunteers; and
  • Increases awareness of services and programs as essential to customer quality of life, transparent government, and a thriving community.

Customer Information Services

Acquire, organize, evaluate, and manage our collections in diverse formats; provide services that customers know, understand and use effectively as they embark or continue on the journey of lifelong learning.

Physical Facilities

Offer functional, well maintained spaces and equipment that:

  • Provide optimal access to our resources;
  • Promote cultural, recreational and educational development;
  • Allow efficient delivery of services, and
  • Promote the safety and security of library customers, staff, and resources.

Nelson, Sandra. (2008). PLA Series:  Strategic Planning for Results.



 Appendix C

 LibQUAL+TM Survey Questions


Appendix D

University of Memphis Focus Group Questions



  • What technologies do you use in your life, in your work, in your research? (e. g. phone, chat, email, etc.)
  • For what do you currently use the library?
  • What frustrates you the most about our library?
  • What library support do you need to complete your teaching, research, artistic expression, and engaged scholarship needs?
  • Please identify the one factor, need or concern that you consider to be the most important, critical or necessary for the Libraries to address.
  • What resources or services does the Libraries offer or provide currently that you can live without?
  • What is the most important message you would like to relay?

Probe Questions

  • Would you please explain further?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Would you say more?
  • Is there anything else?
  • Please describe what you mean.
  • I don’t understand.




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