Laser Printing at Public Workstations User Behaviors and Attitudes

Richard L. Hart, John A. Olson, and Patience L. Simmonds

The provision of laser printing may become an increasingly common but potentially costly change at libraries' public workstations. This article reports findings from a survey of student library users at Penn State Erie during the first semester after unlimited, free laser printing was made available. Students were surveyed on the amount and types of printing that they did, their attitudes and behaviors toward wasteful printing, and their willingness to pay for printing. Findings reveal that students' printing was highly focused on their curricular needs. While students strongly support free printing, they are also quite sensitive to the issue of wasteful printing.

In the past, many libraries and their users had been satisfied with using dot-matrix printers at their public workstations. After all, the only things available to print were citations-or perhaps abstracts-to books or journal articles. However, with the advent of Internet access, with the widespread use of new databases including full-text materials, and with the proliferation of Web-based products that rely on the use of images, the dot-matrix printer has been found to be too slow and too noisy to properly serve current user needs. Libraries find that high-speed laser printing can no longer be viewed as a luxury, but is now seen by many libraries as a fundamental part of the services that they offer.

Park (1997) notes that although only a very few articles have been written about the shift from dot-matrix to laser printing, some lively listserv discussions suggest that the topic is of considerable interest to librarians. Concerns about the need for improved printing ultimately get down to a question of funding. With library users having access to a wide array of full-text and Internet resources from a public workstation, the provision of free, unlimited laser printing is thought to lead to a dramatic increase in printing, such as that noted at the Colorado State University Library (Moothart and Wess 1999) and in the computer labs at Pomona College (Gnagni 1999). As a result, librarians have been forced to carefully examine whether they can afford to provide free laser printing to their patrons.

One solution to the problem of rising demand for printing is for a library to institute a system of fee collection as a means of recouping some of their costs, and as a way of reducing wasteful or excessive printing (Vidmar, Berger, and Anderson 1998; Moothart and Wess 1999). Several automated charging systems are currently available, and each type has its strengths and weaknesses (Vidmar et al. 1998; Park 1997). However, the collection of fees can have substantial costs associated with them in the way of hardware (such as debit card readers and file servers), software and annual software fees, and additional labor costs required for staff to maintain the system. As Gnagni (1999) notes, the investment that is made in an automated fee collection system may ultimately prove to be as costly as paying for the additional paper and toner that accompany the provision of unlimited free printing.

The present study was undertaken in an effort to get a better sense of what occurs in a college library when the switch is made to free laser printing. The study examined student library users at Penn State Erie in an effort to identify the types and amounts of printing that the students do, and to better understand their attitudes toward laser printing.

Background and Design of the Study

Located in Erie, Pennsylvania, Penn State Erie is one of twenty-four campuses of Penn State University. With an enrollment of 3,600 residential and commuter students, the college offers a variety of bachelor's programs as well as a graduate degree in business administration. Public workstations in the library have access to the substantial online resources that are common to all libraries within the Penn State University Libraries' system, including full-text databases such as ProQuest, Lexis-Nexis, JSTOR, IEL, and Muse. The workstations can access a sizeable number of online indexes and reference resources. Access to the Internet is unrestricted and patrons can utilize free e-mail services such as Hotmail. However, use of the standard Penn State e-mail is not permitted.

As plans were made to change from dot-matrix to laser printing, the use of an automated fee-collection system, such as Uniprint, was given serious consideration. This strategy was ultimately rejected in favor of offering free, unlimited printing. The decision to offer free printing was reached only after considerable consultation between administrators in the library, the computer center, and others on campus, including faculty advisory committees to the library and to the computer center. Reasons that were influential in deciding not to charge for printing were:

1. A source of funding was already in place. Penn State students are charged a computer fee, and some of these funds could be used to provide printers, paper, and toner for laser printing.

2. Since students pay a separate computer fee, a per page charge for printing in the library and computer center was expected to create resentment on the part of students.

3. Administrators were not convinced that a cost-recovery system such as Uniprint would be cost-effective. There was agreement that if a fee were to be charged, it needed to be kept under five cents per page. It was felt that savings generated from reduced printing, or actual income from per page charges, might not cover the added expenses in terms of software, hardware, and manpower that a cost-recovery system requires.

Prior to August 1999, the Penn State Erie library had eleven public workstations. Each workstation had its own dot-matrix printer. In August 1999 five workstations were added, bringing the total to sixteen. At the same time, all workstations were networked to one of two laser printers with a printing capacity of twenty-four pages per minute. The majority of the workstations were located within thirty feet of the printers in the main reference area, making them as accessible as possible to library users.

Since a review of the literature suggests that free laser printing leads to wasteful and excessive printing, the authors of this study set out to monitor student use of the new printing system and to gather information on students' behaviors and attitudes regarding the laser printing. Specifically, this study sought to answer the following questions:

  • What are Penn State Erie students printing from the library workstations? What databases or other resources are they printing from, and how much do they print? Are they satisfied with the current printing system?
  • What are the students' attitudes and behaviors in regard to wasteful or excessive printing? Do the students believe that they engage in wasteful printing? Are they concerned about excessive printing? How much of a full-text document do they read before sending it to the printer?
  • How do students feel about the possibility of paying for laser printing? Do they object to paying a fee, and would they alter their printing habits if a small fee were charged?

The primary method of data collection for this study involved the use of a sixteen-item questionnaire. The questionnaire was pretested with ten students and revised for its final form. Over a two-week period, near the end of the fall 1999 semester, copies of the survey were randomly distributed by library staff to students who were printing from the library's laser printers. Students who were not using the printers were not included in the survey. Thus, the survey participants included only students who were in the library using the new printers. Additional data were collected by monitoring the printers for the number of copies made, and collecting printouts from the recycling bins located adjacent to each of the printers.


Type and Amount of Printing

Surveys were given to one hundred students, and a response rate of 91 percent was achieved, as ninety-one students deposited a completed survey in the collection box. This high rate of return was not unexpected, since the students were asked ahead of time if they would be willing to complete the brief survey. Several demographic variables were examined to see how the respondents compared to the student body in general. Fifty percent of the respondents lived on campus and 50 percent lived off campus; ninety percent were full-time and 10 percent were part-time. These figures are fairly close to the overall campus population. Compared to the general population of students, freshmen were substantially overrepresented among the survey respondents, while sophomores and juniors were underrepresented. The number of seniors and graduate students was relatively proportional to the general population. It is possible that the high number of freshman among the respondents was due to the fact that a significant amount of freshman English classes have assignments that require the use of the library. The surveys may have been distributed at a time when these assignments were due. At any rate, the fact that a disproportionately large number of the respondents were freshmen should be remembered when considering the results of the survey. It would be expected that freshmen would be less sophisticated in their use of the library than would upper classmen.

A total of 43,000 laser copies were made during the fall 1999 semester. No exact records had been kept when the dot-matrix printers were in use. However, based on the use of paper stock for the dot-matrix printers, it was estimated that approximately 30,000 copies had been generated for the same period during the previous year. Thus, the switch to laser printing, during its first semester in use, represented an estimated increase of 43 percent over the dot-matrix printers.

To get a sense of how this printing fit into the students' total printing needs, a survey question asked the respondents to indicate the percentage of all of the printing that they do at various locations. This included their home or dorm, a college computer lab, the library, or some other location. The results indicate that while these students report active use of library printers, the library printers are used much less than the students' home or dorm printers and the computer lab printers in their total printing. Home or dorm printing accounted for 49.7 percent of these students' total printing, the computer lab 30.6 percent, the library 17.7 percent, and "other" locations 2 percent. (The only "other" location specified was the student's place of work.)

Overall satisfaction with the library's networked laser printing was relatively high. A total of 93.4 percent of the students were satisfied with the networked laser printing-51.6 percent were very satisfied, 30.8 percent were moderately satisfied, and 11 percent were satisfied. Only 6.6 percent were moderately or very dissatisfied. From comments that were made, much of the dissatisfaction could be attributed to some technical difficulties that had been experienced during part of the semester when printing was not possible from several of the workstations. Some students noted that the new printing system represented a major improvement over the dot-matrix printers.

Other survey questions were designed to get an estimate of the amount and types of printing that the students were doing. One question asked the respondents to indicate the approximate number of pages that they had printed of various types of material: full-text articles, citations, abstracts, class Web site, other Web site for class work, Web site for nonclass purposes, and e-mail. They were also asked to indicate if they printed other types of material. The results of this question are presented in table 1. As might be expected, the students reported that the most frequently printed type of document was the full-text article. It is interesting to note that the majority of respondents reported that they had never printed from five of the categories of documents listed on the questionnaire, including the three types of Web sites, e-mail, and citations.

Table 1. Amounts of Printing from Various Sources

% of respondents who report printing


 more than 10 pages

1-10 pages

no pages





Web site for class purposes












Class Web site




Other Web site (not for class)








Another question was intended to get a better sense of how much use students made of three of the more heavily used full-text journal databases: UMI's Proquest, Lexis-Nexis, and JSTOR. As expected, Proquest, a database of widespread interest and appeal, was reportedly used most heavily as 60.6 percent of the students indicated that they "sometimes" or "often" printed from it. In contrast, only 26.1 percent printed "sometimes" or "often" from Lexis-Nexis, and 21.3 percent from JSTOR. However, the high proportion of freshmen in this survey, new to use of the college library, may have helped keep the Lexis-Nexis and JSTOR numbers relatively low.

Wasteful Printing?

There is probably no single easy method to determine how much printing by library users is wasteful or excessive. In fact, it may not be easy to agree as to what constitutes "wasteful" or "excessive" printing. The user's definition may differ from the librarian's definition. For example, if the library had not intended that the workstations and printers be used for e-mail or nonclass-related Web use, printing from those sources might be viewed as wasteful or excessive by the librarian. But the user might see it differently.

In an attempt to estimate how much printing by the Penn State Erie students was wasteful or excessive, a number of sources of data were examined. First, there is evidence from the data presented above in regard to the sources of printing in table 1 that the vast majority of the printing is directly related to the students' course work. Only 11 percent of the students indicated that they printed more than ten pages from a Web site that was not related to their course work, and only 3.4 percent indicated that they printed more than ten pages from their e-mail (which presumably was not related to their course work). This suggests that-at least in terms of the types of resources that were printed-very little of the students' printing should be viewed as inappropriate for printing from a library workstation.

Another measure of waste is the amount of printing that is immediately placed in the recycling bins located next to the printers. A study at George Washington University's computer labs found that 25 percent of all printing was immediately placed in the recycling bins (Gnagni 1999). In the present study, the recycling bins were prominently displayed in order to encourage the collection of unwanted printing. During the course of the semester 1,727 printouts were recycled. This represents 4.0 percent of the total printing. In contrast to the amount of recycling noted at the George Washington University computer labs, the amount of waste found at the Penn State Erie library was quite modest.

Examination of the recycled pages was further analyzed by type of printing. The results are presented in table 2. The majority of the recycled printing (59.4 percent) came from a database to which the library subscribes, with three databases (Encyclopedia Britannica, JSTOR, and ProQuest) each accounting for more than 10 percent of the total. Printing from various Web sites accounted for 35.5 percent of the recycled paper. Only 2 percent came from e-mail, while 3.1 percent was due to printer errors or the printing of blank pages. These results tend to confirm the results noted above, that student printing was focused on curricular needs.

Table 2. Contents of Recycling Bins*
 Type of printing

% of Total recycling

 Web site  


 Online databases  


 Encyclopaedia Britannica




ProQuest (UMI)


LIAS (Penn State's OPAC)


17 other databases, combined


Blank pages and printer errors






* Based on 1,727 pages gathered from the recycling bins.

The survey included several questions that were intended to reveal how students view the issue of wasteful printing. One survey question asked the students to indicate how much of a full-text document they read before sending it to the printer. This question was asked with the assumption that wasteful printing is reduced as a student reads a greater portion of the document. Results of this question are presented in table 3. It is clear that these students read a substantial portion of a full-text document before deciding to print it. In fact, only 3.3 percent indicated that they do not read at least the first paragraph before making their decision. In a related question, 70 percent of the respondents indicated that they do "think about how much paper it will take to print a citation or article" before sending it to the printer. Responses to both of these questions seem to suggest a relatively high degree of sensitivity to the issue of wasteful printing.

Table 3. How Much Students Read of a Full-Text Document Prior to Printing
 Portion of full-text article

 % of respondents

 Entire article


 More than the first paragraph


First paragraph


First sentence only


Title only




When asked if "free laser printing promotes wasteful printing," 59.3 percent indicated that it is "not at all wasteful," while 39.6 percent felt that it is "somewhat wasteful." Only 1.1 percent thought that it is "very wasteful." When asked if they felt that the library should take steps to reduce wasteful printing, 27.5 percent of the respondents indicated that the library should take steps. Many of these respondents offered suggestions as to what steps should be taken. Several suggested that signs should be posted with a message encouraging users to be careful with their printing. Others suggested the use of signs to promote recycling. Several students suggested the use of a system that would limit the amount of free printing, so that after a certain amount of free copies students would be charged for additional printouts.

Students Pay for Printing?

Although the library had no plans to charge for printing, two hypothetical questions were included in the survey to get a sense of how students felt about the possibility of paying a small fee for printing, and how their printing behavior might change if a fee was charged. The question on payment of a fee was worded as follows: "Would you be in favor of paying a small fee for printing, such as two cents per page, as a way to reduce wasteful printing and to help the library recover the cost of paper and toner?" With such a low fee, and with this sympathetic wording, 16.5 percent of the students indicated that they were willing to pay a fee. The other 83.5 percent were opposed, and many of them took the opportunity to expand upon their feelings in the comments section of the survey. It is clear that many of those who were opposed to paying for printing held very strong feelings on the subject. One respondent's words were typical of several others, "My tuition covers the paper I use, and I am insulted that more money is to be taken from the students." Although much less typical, another student approached it differently, "I think it is very considerate of the college to provide free laser printing. Thank you."

When asked how their printing would change if a fee of two cents per page was instituted, 31.1 percent of the respondents said that there would be no change in their printing, 22.2 percent said they would print "somewhat less," while 18.9 percent would print "much less," and 27.8 percent would not print at all. These responses clearly indicate that the institution of a fee-even one as low as two cents per page-would have a major impact in reducing the total amount of printing that is done. Nearly 70 percent of all students indicated that they would either reduce or totally eliminate their printing with this small per page fee. This response was not unexpected. When the Colorado State University library went from free laser printing to charging ten cents per page, total printing dropped by more than 75 percent (Moothart and Wess 1999).

Discussion and Conclusion

The students in this study reported a high level of satisfaction with the new system of networked, unlimited, free laser printing. Although a high proportion of the respondents were freshmen (who had never used the library's dot-matrix printers), several provided written comments noting that the laser printing was a great improvement over the previous printers. Evidence from the survey strongly suggests that student use of the printers was very closely related to curricular needs-that is, the students generally were not using the printers for e-mail or for noncourse-related Web sites. As would have been expected, full-text journal articles were reported to constitute the most heavily printed type of resource.

While there is evidence of waste, the amount of waste as indicated by examination of the recycling bins is much less than would have been expected. The 4 percent of total printing found in the recycling bins is much lower than reported in a previous study at the computer labs of George Washington University. In addition, Penn State Erie students reveal sensitivity to the problem of potentially wasteful printing. A majority of them read a substantial portion of a full-text document before they print it, and they report that they consciously think about the amount of paper that will be required. Nearly 30 percent of the students felt that the library should take steps to control wasteful printing, and many of them suggested that signs be posted at workstations encouraging prudent printing and active recycling. Finally, there was evidence that most of these students would not welcome a fee for printing-even a very modest fee of two cents per page.

Increasingly, libraries will face the issue of how to provide high quality printing. The present study suggests that in the case of one library, unlimited free laser printing has been offered (at least for the first semester) without disastrous consequences. While printing increased, the floodgates did not open. While students engaged in some wasteful printing, it was much less than might have been expected. Perhaps the most unexpected result was that students are more sensitive to wasteful printing than might have been expected, and they seem quite receptive to conservation efforts.

Works Cited

Gnagni, Steven. 1999. The paper chase. University Business 2, no. 1: 60­61.

Moothart, Tom, and Lindsey Wess. 1999. Popularity has its costs: Charging for public printing. Colorado Libraries 25, no. 1: 15­18.

Park, Betsy. 1997. Charging for printouts. The Bottom Line: Managing Library Finances 10, no. 4: 148­52.

Vidmar, Dale J., Marshall A. Berger, and Connie J. Anderson. 1998. Printing from public workstations in the library. Computers in Libraries 18, no. 5: 26­30.

   Richard L. Hart ( is Library Director and Patience L. Simmonds ( is Reference Librarian at The Behrend College Library, Penn State Erie. John A. Olson ( is Maps/GIS Librarian, Bird Library, Syracuse University.