The Elusive User


[city man watching fog dust | pixabay]
[city man watching fog dust | pixabay]
Each year, OCLC Research staff gather together to review current activities and to plan for the upcoming year. During this year’s meeting, which happened in September, we reviewed our activity areas. I lead the User Behavior Studies and Synthesis activity area; our group engaged in a discussion about describing and possibly renaming the activity area. We discussed “user behavior studies” and whether this terminology is overused and whether it reflects the whole picture of studying and identifying how individuals engage with technology; how they seek, access, and use information; and how and why they demonstrate these behaviors and do what they do.

I wonder if we, as librarians and information professionals, spend too much time contemplating and discussing users of our services and resources and if this energy would be well spent on identifying those individuals who choose not to use library services and resources. I wonder why we are fixated on users of library services and resources and why we do not expend energy on learning about those who go elsewhere for their technology and information needs and try to position library services and resources in their workflows and personal and professional landscapes. Marie L. Radford and I define these individuals who do not use library services and resources as potential users.

If we do buy into this need to identify potential users and their behaviors, what do we call this group? Are these individuals users also, just not users of library services and resources? The term potential user seems cumbersome and not very enticing when trying to promote interest and activity in this area. Even more difficult is identifying a term that describes both users and potential users of library services and resources. Could that term be Elusive Users? According to Choose Your Words, “Anything elusive is hard to get a hold of. It eludes you.” Does this term, elusive, accurately describe the individuals who we observe, interview, and track in various contexts of using technology and acquiring information? I invite you to share your ideas in the comments!

8 Comments on “The Elusive User”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Something we have concentrated on in our research is better understanding how individuals engage with technology and get their information for both personal and academic situations. We have learned that the context and situation of the need often dictates how they behave and engage with technology and how and why they select to use resources, usually discovered through a web browser, including freely available resources, such as Wikipedia, human sources, and library resources.

    If we try to identify how individuals find information and how and why they get their information as well as how and why they choose to engage with specific technology, could we, as librarians, try to provide services and systems that will meet some of these needs? Is this attempting to take on more than librarians have the capacity to do, or, is this something that we have any interest in doing? Do we care if we attract new and different individuals to recognize and use our resources and services? Should we only concentrate on those who currently use our resources and services and develop personalized or “boutique” library services ( for them?

  2. I would echo Roger’s comments that it makes best sense to think about users/nonusers of specific services rather than of “the library” and am also intrigued by marketshare – though cautious about assumptions that 100% marketshare is the desirable level for a service. Having said that, we can’t focus only on services currently offered because we also need to be aware that there may be non-use because a service is lacking that should be created. For what it is worth, I find the term “potential user” more useful than “elusive user” because elusive seems to me to carry with it the notion that the user should be using the library/a service and I’m not convinced we should assume that. But, I also have a fairly robust conceptual understanding of “potential” due to multiple years of natural philosophy courses that explored the nuances of potential vs actual in great, great detail and so I gravitate toward the word potential! Finally, I wonder about adding to this discussion the notion of user engagement/intensity of use – a user might be a highly engaged user with a particular service … and more engaged overall with the library than another user who makes very light use of a variety of services.

  3. Libraries are evolving.To keep up perhaps we as experienced academic librarians need to focus on the quality of interactions with the user community whether remotely or face to face.Knowing our users and providing excellent resources to support the research DIY instead of displaying quantifying stats to impress people as a way of justifying existence! At the end of the day if we know & look after our patrons, they will return which leads to a more successful outcome for all.This applies in both digital and text format surroundings.

  4. I think libraries often build systems and services with the intent of appealing to these elusive users. Unfortunately, we’re generally working with assumptions about them. In part, this is because librarians have far more access to people who are using the library. In an academic setting, it’s relatively easy to study people who are in the building or using the library’s web services. It’s much more difficult to find and address students and staff who would normally never use the library. It’s not impossible, but it would require very different recruitment strategies and perhaps higher incentives. Why participate in a study designed to improve a service you don’t plan to use?

  5. I call the combined set of users and non-users the library’s community.

    It seems important to recognize that people (or households in the case of a public library) do not group into two sets, users and non-users. Rather, services have users and non-users. For example, one might use Google for discovery, Amazon for delivery of trade books, and the academic library’s collections and ILL services for delivery of certain more specialized material. Or, a preschool child may take a crafting program and attend storytimr at the local public library while her parents purchase their leisure reading through B&N.

    For this reason, I am coming to prefer a market share model for understanding levels of library vs competitor usage of various community needs. This is not to take away from the importance of studying the behaviors and needs of non-users on a service by service basis, which I agree is extremely important.

  6. We have this conversation at ACRL when we discuss membership. All associations are seeing some decline in members. So what do you do? Put your resources into maintaining existing members or try to recruit new ones. The research suggests you will do much better investing resources in maintaining existing members.

    That means finding ways to keep them engaged and helping to build their enthusiasm for belonging and participating. I have suggested before that we are probably never going to reach everyone in our communities (I’d consider the non-users as “community members” as opposed to elusive users. They are all “members” but some choose not to take advantage of their member privileges). See

    That said, I do think it is important that academic libraries develop strategies for community outreach. I think the best way to encourage those elusive users is to collaborate with faculty to develop assignments that will get them engaged with librarians – so that they can discover the value their library offers.

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