Volume 29, Number 1, Spring 2007

Delaware State Library Studies User Motivation

In fall 2005, the Delaware State Library contracted with the Institute for Learning Innovation, an Annapolis-based nonprofit learning research and development organization, to develop a study to explore the motivations, prior experiences, attitudes and expectations of users of the Dover Public Library. The goal of the study was to develop a better understanding of the public’s perceptions and use of libraries as lifelong, free-choice learning resources.

Building upon previous research, particularly research on the role that identity and visit motivation have on museum learning and behavior, the study utilized multiple methods to investigate the identity-based reasons why people do and do not use libraries regularly and how these identity and motivations impact use of a library in Dover, Delaware.

This study was a pilot effort to explore the ability of such an approach to provide a detailed, empirical approach to segmenting library users, using user-centered, identity-based motivational categories rather than library-centered, activity-defined categories. The study also helped lay the foundation for better understanding the impact libraries have on lifelong learning and how library services and programs could be designed to better support personalized free-choice learning experiences.


Phase One: Library User Interception
In November 2005, 113 pre- and post-interviews were collected across twenty hours including weekday, evening, and weekend hours at the Dover Public Library. Visitors were intercepted (next available patron) as they entered the library’s main entrance. The sample was representative of the Dover Public Library demographics. The refusal rate was extremely low (7 percent). Library patrons were enthusiastic about the opportunity to share feelings about libraries.

Visitors were asked to review a series of cards outlining possible motivations for that day’s library visit. The motivational categories used were based upon combining categories developed for museum visitors verified and amplified by open-ended interviews with twenty library users during a preliminary investigation. Visitors were also asked a series of short questions, and the researchers asked them to return to the table after they had completed their visit. At the time of exit, the visitors’ time investment, task success and follow-up contact information were noted.

Phase Two: Follow Up Phone Interviews
Approximately one month later, 29 members of the original sample of library users (approximately 25 percent) were successfully recontacted at home by telephone. These subjects agreed to participate in a thirty-minute phone conversation. The purpose of the phone interview was to confirm the accuracy of the motivation rating categories used on the survey instrument, to explore the users’ personal and past history of library use, to investigate connections between lifelong learning and library use, to assess library user satisfaction with current library offerings, and to discover potential new programs and services. The researchers took extensive notes during the interview process to support later analysis.

Phase One Findings: Library Interceptions

Library users were happy to talk about their library use. They were asked to select a reason for their visit from a series of twelve cards containing reasons that had been developed from previous interviews with library users (see Table 1). Cards were presented in random order; if visitors couldn’t select, they told the interviewer why they were there in their own words. Their responses were catagorized as “other.” Visitors were encouraged to try to find one or two reasons that best described the reason for their visit today. Sixty-two percent of visitors chose more than one reason.

Table 1. Motivations for Visiting the Library

Motivation Categories

A qualitative content analysis of responses was used to generate eight basic reasons for library attendance, plus an “other” category. These eight identity-related reasons were then used to develop motivation categories—categories of users with similar needs. These are currently described as:
  • Explorer: Users that are simply curious and love to learn new things, but do not have a content or subject agenda driving their visit. They know they’ll find something interesting at the library and like learning the types of things they learn there.
  • Facilitator: Users who are there largely to support someone else. They come to cultivate library going and behavior in their children or because they want to check out audio books for a friend.
  • Scholar: Users that have deep interest and a history of research work in one topic area. Examples of users in this category described themselves as “a genealogist” or “a religious scholar.” These individuals often use the interlibrary loan services or travel to specific libraries with supportive collections.
  • Problem Solver: Users have a specific question or problem that they’re trying to solve. This includes users planning a trip, learning about a new pregnancy, or looking for information on how to write a successful job resume.
  • Hobbyist: Users have a specific interest area and come to the library to further that particular interest. Interesting examples include the NASCAR specialist and the aviation buff, both of whom come to stay on top of what is new in their fields.
  • Experience Seeker: Users perceive the library as a venue for entertainment or social connection. They come to the library to be around people, particularly people like themselves, or to read the newspaper. They may also come to check out books or DVDs, but are less concerned about the books or DVDs they choose, and really describe themselves as looking for something to occupy their time.
  • Patron: Users have a strong sense of belonging to the library and join the local library immediately when they change communities. They often volunteer for the library and go out of their way to bring other, less committed users with them.
  • Spiritual Pilgrim: Users focus on the library as a place of reflection or rejuvenation. They speak of the library as their “peace” place or as a “constant” in their life. They come to the library because it nurtures a spiritual need.
  • Other: This category includes a range of users whose motivations did not meet the criteria of the above categories. Examples include users who were at the library just to drop something off or pick something up or the individual who had to prove he was at the library in order to get credit for another program. Table 2 summarizes how the 113 library users were distributed across these nine categories.
Table 2. Distribution of Library Users as a Function of Motivational Categories
Reason for Visit % of Patrons
I always find something interesting here 32
I love to learn new things 11
I’m here to bring my child(ren) 11
I’m here to get something for someone else 5
I’m here because I study X, and want to find more information 9
I’m here to complete a school assignment 10
I’m here to find the answer to a specific problem 16
I’m here to check my email 10
I’m here to find information on a specific topic 10
I’m interested in X, and want to find out more about that 4
This library has a good selection of DVD’s and videos 21
I feel refreshed or rejuvenated when I leave 9
I had to prove I was here for another program 1
I belong here – I support this library 16
I always come to read�.. (here) 8
Other 8
Category Total % % Who Chose this
Category Alone
% Chose this Category
in Combination
Explorer 35 13 22
Facilitator 16 9 7
Scholar 9 3 6
Problem Solver 23 11 12
Hobbyist 4 1 3
Experience Seeker 36 8 28
Patron 16 3 13
Spiritual Pilgrim 8 0 8
Other 9 6 3

Phase Two Findings: Follow-up Phone Interviews

The follow-up phone interviews resulted in five findings: Finding 1
The phone interviews strongly supported the ability of this preliminary instrument to identify and categorize library user’s identity-related motivations. Fully 80 percent of the phone interviews confirmed the motivation category identified by the card sort activity during the original interception interview.

Finding 2
Users described a major shift in their information-seeking behaviors indicating an ever-greater reliance upon the Internet to solve their day-to-day information-seeking needs. However, other significant changes in library use also emerged.

Library users, (particularly those with small children) spoke of having less leisure time and hence spending less time reading for pleasure and pursuing hobbies. At the same time, they felt that their need to be able to find reliable information and answers had increased.

A number of users described their library use as becoming more entertainment-oriented rather than information-related as their research needs were fulfilled at home.

Many users were attempting to customize their library experience, while streamlining their actual visit, by browsing the library’s holdings at home, online, further identifying their (usually fiction) choices, and placing these items on hold, requiring only a quick trip to the library to pick-up or return the materials.

A number of library users spoke of using their eyes all day long using computers at work and hence preferring to check out audiobooks to pursue their reading habit while resting their eyes.

A number of adult library users had returned to formal education settings, thus returning to library use in order to fulfill course research and reading assignments.

Finding 3
Most of the library users in our study expressed a strong emotional investment in their local library, which was often developed by being taken to the library as a child. Many individuals described the sense of wonderment and special “place” accompanying their childhood library visits that was later transformed into a deep desire to share that with their own children. More surprisingly perhaps, for some younger adult visitors, the library plays the role of community “constant” or safe haven in their lives—lives disrupted by family moves, divorces, and other changes.

Most of the library users in our study did not see libraries as outdated or superfluous due to the advent of the Internet; rather, they deeply desired that the library continue to evolve in ways that allow it to continue to play an important role in people’s lives and communities.

Finding 4
Not surprisingly, these current users of the Dover library, expressed general satisfaction with the customer services currently offered by the Dover Public Library. The average ranking of their satisfaction was 7.0 on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being not satisfied at all and 10 being fully satisfied), with a range of 5 to 10. In particular, users commented on the helpfulness and friendliness of staff, wide selection of DVD, video, and CD materials, accessibility and hours of operation.

Finding 5
Library users, while somewhat hesitant to speak negatively of the library, and recognizing limitations of the Dover Library with regard to staff, space, and finances, clearly identified a number of areas where they felt the library could better serve their needs. For the most part suggestions for improved library use directly correlated with the motivational category into which they defined themselves. The three most common motivation categories were Experience Seeker (36 percent), Explorers (35 percent) and Problem Solver (23 percent).

For each of these three dominant motivational categories, a summary of the ways in which libraries could better support library user’s needs are presented, followed by a specific case study. Names used in the case studies are fictitious, and the use of italics indicates a direct quote from an interviewee.

Experience Seekers – Building Community

All users believed that at a rudimentary level, libraries already act as community centers, allowing people to communicate shared values such as cultural diversity or the joy of learning and reading. However, a disproportionate number of Experience Seekers spoke of the potential for libraries to expand this role by offering opportunities for them to come to the library for a wider variety of activities, such as:
  • Offering enriched programming such as classes, guest speakers, reading groups, and the like. Users spoke of wanting an interactive exchange with experts, which is not available on television or the Internet. In addition to presentations with personal accounts and/or expert knowledge, users wanted to be able to ask questions and connect personally with the presenter. Topics suggested ranged from travelogues, to cultural diversity (the music of Thailand), to parenting classes.
  • Libraries should be an important space to share and transfer important values about reading, learning, and the love of books. In an age where children are absorbed by electronic games and equipment, parents, in particular, spoke of an urgent and expanding role for the library in engaging young children and sustaining young teens in a closer relationship with reading and books.
  • Libraries could work harder at building community by offering individuals the opportunity to engage with others who share specific interests and learning preferences; all while providing a safe space to support identity-building and personal exploration. Again, a number of the individuals with whom we talked felt libraries could expand this role through both expansion of above-mentioned programs as well as through the development of specialized groups or clubs. Suggestions ranged from an educational series focused on regional history offered through presentations, reading assignments and resource suggestions, to a mystery-readers book group.

Experience Seeker Case Study: “Martha” a Delaware rural resident in her 50s.

Martha is a voracious reader of mystery novels. In addition to her consumption of those, she and her husband frequently enjoy borrowing movies and books on tape when they travel. Despite the fact that she grew up in an area without a local library close by and that her parents were both busy working and unable to take her to libraries, they instilled in her a love of books and reading. When Martha was a teenager they moved to New York City, which occasioned her first library use. She began to go every afternoon after school to do her homework and that’s where I fell in love with libraries. She loves to come to the library just to see what’s new. When she wants to learn something new, she tends to use a combination of the Internet and books. She feels strongly that the Internet is a useful tool, but superficial, and that books provide a depth of detail unavailable online.

I think they could do a much better job of programming – more informative things you can’t get online or on TV. I went to hear a man who went to Africa for a few months to do research – something interesting, I forget exactly what, but it was interesting. I liked the give and take with this guy – which is what you can’t get with the Internet or a DVD. People who can talk about their own experiences. Like why don’t they go to the Muslim community and get the religious leader to talk about what Islam is – partly the info and partly the give and take. I think they could use community expertise better, I really do.”

Explorers - Customization

Explorers, in particular, felt a need to be able to customize their use of the library. While often echoing the desire for special presentations, Explorers also wanted to tailor their library use to their specific interests. These users spoke of wanting a quiet room where they could read or browse through selections, without cell phones, students chatting, or front desk noise. As well, these users suggested:
  • Reading suggestion lists, both online and hard copy, for readers interested in a specific topic or author. Users cited the Amazon.com example of responding to previous purchases with a suggestion list.
  • A recommended list in response to current events such as the tsunami, political events, and science news. Readers felt it would be important to have enough copies of such recommendations to serve a large need – and while they recognized such topical recommendations might be short lived, they would be strongly utilized by a large group in a short time, which, they felt would compensate for being in circulation for only a year or so.
  • Explorers want to be in communication with the library. They spoke of their desire to receive the above recommendations by e-mail prompt. In short, Explorers wanted a library that knew who they were, understood what they wanted, and responded personally to those needs.
  • The need to rest their eyes in the evening. When, in previous years, they might spend a portion of their evening reading, they now prefer to listen to audio-books.

Explorer Case Study: “Henry” a male Dover resident in his 50s

Henry does most of his browsing via the online catalogue at home, allowing him to put books on hold and organize interlibrary loans. He greatly appreciates the ability to customize his library use this way. His parents took him to the library as a child, and he proudly remembers receiving his first library card at the age of six. His family instilled in him a love of reading and books, but book purchases were a luxury his family could not afford, thus the library was about both providing reading materials and access to educational materials. In his leisure time Henry enjoys boating and listening to music, and he makes regular use of the library’s CD collection to sample new genres of music. Recently diagnosed with a blood disorder, the library was his primary source of medical information. Henry does not enjoy travel but is curious about the rest of the world. He frequently checks out DVDs that are nonfiction travelogues and documentaries.

I like getting what I want. I don’t really have the time or the inclination to go and browse, although I guess that’s what I do on the Internet. If my wife reads about a book she wants in a magazine or the paper, I jump up and put it on hold for her�It’s in my nature to borrow, rather than buy books, but I have bought books from online services. I like how they have recommendations for me, based on what I’ve bought before. It makes me consider things I wouldn’t know existed. I think the library could do something like that.

Problem Solvers and Scholars – Research Support

As other research indicates, many visitors are turning to the Internet to satisfy immediate information needs formerly fulfilled by the library’s resources. Library users described Internet resources as being easier and faster to access, but also more current and up-to-date. However the Internet does not provide users with the same self-paced learning. They felt the library could better support their research needs by:
  • Offering access to online resources, some of which are not readily available on their home computer with better tools to help them search the Internet, and getting suggestions from the library for reliable sites for doing their research.
  • Offering reference direction and support to the large array of online resources, as reference librarians have long done for print materials. Users are overwhelmed with the vast array of responses to their online queries and do not have the ability to focus in on relevant, reliable materials.
  • Some users expressed frustration in finding materials identified through an Internet search but unavailable because they are in "academic" and "professional" locations.

Problem Solver Case Study: “Lucretia” a female Dover resident in her late 20s

Lucretia feels her needs are only moderately met by the Dover Library because she compared it to the Wilmington Library downtown, where the resources are better in the categories of professional and scholarly journals. Her parents did not take her to the library, that she can remember; rather, the concept of the library was shaped by her time in school.

They took us to the library and taught us to use the card files and how to find things. The message I always got was that the library is a place of learning.

When Lucretia needs to learn something new she first goes to the Internet because of its easy access. She uses the Internet to identify journals, both online and hard copy, and then tries to get those journals via interlibrary loan. Finally, she says she uses the library to find local specialists.

I think the library should provide some sort of tool or class to guide research. So, if you’re diagnosed with arthritis, for instance, you have guidance about places to go look for information. So, under arthritis, they might have categories, different kinds, and then categories of information like cures, natural cures, pharmaceutical, home remedies, that kind of thing, and then suggestions of places to look for that kind of information, so, you know, more places to look for information you want. Some kind of framework to support research directions.


Although limited in scope and scale, this pilot study provides strong supporting evidence that taking an identity-motivation approach to library user segmentation has the potential to support improved library practice.

Library users were willing to participate in an effort to better understand how to improve library use, and were - quickly and without concerns about privacy - happy to engage in a self-rating exercise that described their reasons for utilizing the library on that day. The card sort instrument was able to accurately place better than 90 percent of library users into one of eight identity-based motivational categories. Additional research will be required to further validate these categories, as several categories appear to overlap. Based upon the findings from this pilot study, we would anticipate that the final segmentation scheme will include fewer than eight categories.

A key finding from this pilot study derived from the post-library-use interviews. The data collected during these interviews provided significant corroboration for the validity of the segmentation scheme. Better than 80 percent of those interviewed verified the accuracy of our initial classifications.

Results from this pilot study showed that a library user’s identity-based motivational category was an excellent predictor of not only how they wished to use the library, but how they actually did use the library and how they felt the library could better serve them. By segmenting library users we were able to see that different library users had different needs; needs that became clear when we separated users out based upon their identity-based library motivations. Because of small sample size, we opted to only include the three most frequently expressed library use identity motivations: Experience Seekers, Explorers, and Problem Solvers/Scholars. Although there were similarities across groups, the most striking finding was the significant differences between these three groups of users.

We understand that we will need to follow up this pilot research with additional, in-depth investigations so that we can refine our segmentation categories and improve the validity and reliability of our instruments. It is worth noting that most of the services that the library users suggested are already offered by Dover Public Library, but obviously they are not promoted in such a way that these groups of users could recognize and take advantage of them. In conclusion, this approach promises to provide a robust and relatively straight-forward mechanism for allowing all public libraries to more proactively and effectively serve the lifelong learning needs of their various users.