Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Chinese College Students’ Information Behavior and Library Needs

Last year, my research collaborators and I conducted a study to examine how the pandemic had impacted Chinese college students’ use of the library. The study took place in April and May 2020. At that time, Chinese college campus had been shut off and all the teaching and learning had been moved online for two months. We collected data using a combination of journaling and in-depth interviews, focusing on the library use and library needs of Chinese college students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our findings indicate that students generally lack awareness and understanding of the library’s online resources and would like the library to provide support in ways that could help them enhance productivity and lessen anxiety in the new reality of learning. Libraries should consider making more outreach efforts and offering programs and events to ameliorate isolation and improve students’ sense of community. We hope that our study can provide academic libraries with a nuanced view of user needs and thus help them make informed decisions to serve their campus communities during the unprecedented health crisis. Through the exploration and documentation of college students’ library use and needs, we also hope to document this critical historical event for the library community.

Now our study has been published in the Library Quarterly. Here’s the citation:

Shi, Y., Li, C. & Luo, L. (2021). Impact of the covid-19 pandemic on Chinese college students’ information behavior and library needs: A qualitative study. Library Quarterly, 91(2), 150-171.

I’m really glad that we were able to contribute to the library and information science (LIS) literature with regards to the pandemic. When years later, the pandemic is finally behind us, I think it will be quite interesting to conduct a content analysis of all the pandemic-related studies/articles in peer reviewed LIS journals to capture and document LIS researchers’ collection contributions.

Ideas for the COVID-19 Pandemic Related Research in Librarianship

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to talk to librarians at the University Library at the University of California at San Diego about the trends and methods of research in academic librarianship. They asked wonderful questions, and one of them was about the kinds of research that librarians may consider doing during the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly disrupted our lives in significant ways, but there may also be new research opportunities arising from it. Conducting research related to the pandemic can help library professionals better understand our user needs and provide more meaningful and effective responses to this public health crisis.

A few months ago when the pandemic just broke out, the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology published a commentary titled “Global health crises are also information crises: A call to action” (Xie et al ,2020)“. In this article, a group of information researchers discussed specific things that information scientists can do to “help individuals and society as a whole survive global health crises like COVID‐19, deal with the aftermath, and be better prepared for the next crisis”. They recommended the following research directions:

  • Misinformation/disinformation particularly during global health crises
  • Health literacy—including eHealth literacy
  • Information behavior during lock downs
  • Vulnerable populations—a case for accessible and usable solutions
  • Information dissemination, sharing, and integration among multiple forms of digital data
  • eHealth tools
  • Predictive methods
  • Digital archiving
  • Ethical considerations

I think it would be helpful for library researchers to put out a similar “call to action”, encouraging librarians to investigate research topics related to the pandemic as well. Some of the potential topics may include:

  • Usage of library services during the pandemic, how it changes from before – especially the use of online library resources and services
  • Library needs of users during the pandemic – e.g. for academic libraries, how do their students and faculty would like the library to provide support to assist them as they study from home? for special user populations, especially those suffering from the digital divide, what can libraries to ensure equity when providing services during the closure of physical library locations?
  • Librarians’ well-being – what are librarians’ health and safety concerns with regards to working during the pandemic if they have to return to work?
  • How librarians can help address misinformation related to the pandemic – what can the library do to better help library users become more critical consumers of information and avoid being victimized by misinformation?
  • Libraries’ response to the pandemic – did the library have a crisis management/communication plan, how did the library make decisions on their responses to this crisis?

Library Responses to COVID-19: What I Observed

The COVID-19 pandemic has been quite disruptive to many aspects of our lives. As we all struggle to manage the new reality, our libraries are also doing their best to continue providing services to their communities during this trying time. I have been following library responses to the COVID-19 crisis on social media and here are some of my observations and experiences.

  • American Library Association (ALA)’s Pandemic Preparedness page has a lot of great resources that could help libraries better understand how to respond to the crisis.
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  • Libraries establish specific pages that list COVID-19 related resources that are reliable and trustworthy, such as the one from Portland State University Library.
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  • A creative librarian from Hoover Library at McDaniel College put on book displays in his/her own home, reminding people that these books are all available through the library’s eBook collection.
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    (image source: Hoover Library’s FaceBook Page)
  • Storytimes have gone virtual! A police officer from Puyallup, WA, a frequent guest at Puyallup Public Library’s storytime, recorded a virtual one for kids.
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    (image source: Puyallup Police Department FaceBook Page)
  • Libraries’ 3D printers have new uses now – they can print face shields for health care providers.
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    (image source: blogto.com)
  • Although the physical location is closed, some libraries still continue to provide curbside delivery services to help patrons check out materials. Woburn Library even made TikTok video to promote this service to their community!
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    (image source: Woburn Public Library FaceBook Page)
  • Libraries are considering turning bookmobiles into free WiFi trucks – what a thoughtful idea!
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    (image source: vice.com)

Despite all the challenges the pandemic has posed, it does provide opportunities for libraries to highlight their wonderful online resources. My local library, San Jose Public Library, has done a fantastic job in that regard. Since the closure of the library building three weeks ago, they have been sending a weekly email to stay in touch with everybody and encourage people to use their online resources.

Week 1, an email containing Frequently Asked Questions that really helped keeping us informed and putting our minds at ease. It’s a relief to know that all of our book will be automatically renewed till after the library reopens.

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Week 2, an email emphasizing SJPL’s online sources specifically oriented to K-12 kids and educators, such as tutor.com and a bunch of EBSCO databases.

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Week 3, an email reminding us that if we don’t have a library card already, we can apply for an eLibrary Card online, so that we can freely use the library’s online resources.

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The most recent week, an email giving us a summary about how people are actively using the library’s online services such as virtual reference, which has been extended to 24/7, and participating the Spring into Reading program, an program that encourages people to use the library’s eBooks and other eResources.

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These emails always bring a smile to my face. 🙂

Our libraries and librarians are the best!

New course on health literacy and public library

I taught a new seminar course this summer, discussing the role of public libraries in supporting the community’s health literacy through the provision of consumer health information. I have done some research in this area and have grown increasingly interested in what libraries can do in meeting the community’s health information needs. The Public Library Association has listed “Health” as one of their initiatives, and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine is also actively working with public libraries in the development of consumer health information collections/services/programs. Event ALA’s Libraries Transform Campaign includes “health” as an area where public libraries can make a difference.

In this class, we looked at how public libraries can provide consumer health information from the following perspectives: the public’s health information seeking behavior, health reference services (e.g. key health information resources, evaluation criteria, health reference interview), consumer health collection development, programming, outreach and collaboration, outcome evaluation and needs assessment, and professional development of public librarians. I asked students to do field research and here are some highlights of their observations how consumer health information is provided in public libraries:

  1. Targeting special populations – e.g. a resource center for veterans where health and wellness is a focus
  2. Targeting a particular health issue – e.g. a desert library has a resource center dedicated to cooling, hydration and other heat-related health concerns
  3. Various fitness programs – e.g. yoga, zumba, Taichi
  4. Workshops covering a wide array of health topics – e.g. healthy lifestyle, mental health
  5. Health-themed book displays in the library;  online resources (databases, curated list of free websites) also have a designated “health and wellness” section
  6. Strong partnerships with community health stakeholders in the development of programs and services

It was really an interesting course to teach despite the huge amount of work. My next step is to identify public librarians who have gone through MLA’s Consumer Health Information Specialization training and interview them, and their perspective and experience will surely help enrich student learning next time I teach the class.

Chinese College Students’ Health Information Seeking Behavior

My research collaborator, Dr. Yanxia Shi, from Shanxi University in China and I have been working on a project (funded by the National Social Science Fund of China) that looks at the role of libraries in contributing to the enhancement of the citizenry’s health information literacy. We recently published a paper in the Journal of Academic Librarianship that examined how Chinese college students seek health information and what the implications are for academic librarians. The impetus for us to study college students came from a tragic incident – in 2016, Zexi Wei, a 21-year old Chinese college student died after receiving experimental treatment for synovial sarcoma at the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps. He learned about this treatment from a promoted result on the Chinese search engine Baidu (the equivalent of Google in China), and ultimately discovered that the hospital had misled patients by providing fraudulent information about the treatment’s success rate. Wei’s death prompted Chinese regulators to investigate Baidu’s advertising practices, and drew widespread attention from the public about the ill-regulated practices of online dissemination of health information.

This tragedy has made us more vigilant about the ubiquity of questionable medical/health information in Chinese cyberspace, and caused us to wonder – how do Chinese college students seek health information? What are the criteria they use to evaluate the information? What can academic libraries do to help them become more information literate and health literate? Our findings were quite illuminating, and now that more and more Chinese students are coming to study in the US as international students, I think this study might yield insights for academic librarians here in the US to improve their programs and services for Chinese international students.

Elsevier (the publisher of JAL) is allowing free access to our article till Mar 14, 2019 https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1YRjYMYb6EGqv – so feel free to check it out if interested. 🙂

Public Libraries and Health Literacy

A major research interest of mine is to look at public libraries’ role in promoting health literacy. Recently I published an article titled “Health information programming in public libraries: a content analysis” in Public Library Quarterly, examining the purpose, content, type and audience of health and wellness programs provided by a large urban public library system in California. To further my research along this line, I’m collaborating with a professor at Shanxi University in China to explore how public libraries are meeting older adults’ needs related to health and wellness. While everybody else was enjoying their Thanksgiving holiday, I flew to China to collect data for this project.

We conducted focus groups at Taiyuan City Library. In China, the way public libraries is set up is quite different from the US – in the US, for instance, in the city of San Jose with a population of 1 million, there are 24 branch libraries dispersed geographically and there’s not much difference in terms of the magnitude of collections/services/programs/facility; but in China, in the entire Taiyuan City with a population of 3.4 million, there are only two public libraries – the Taiyuan City Library and the Shanxi Provincial Library. Both libraries are magnificent six (or five) floor buildings equipped with state-of-the-art technologies and designs. Here are a few photos of Taiyuan City Library:

Spacious interior – the grandeur of the lobby is impressive.

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Touch screens everywhere – for accessing the library catalog, for reading e-Magazines and eBooks, for reading library news and announcements, and for scanning QR code to access library resources on one’s mobile devices, etc.

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Young visitors – we ran into a group of preschoolers visiting the library. From what I heard, the city library has become an popular site for school field trips!

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The way Chinese libraries develop and provide library programs is also quite different from the US. For instance, in the US, there are many activity-based or instructional programs geared toward older adults (e.g. Taichi class, line dance/ ballroom dance class, instructional workshops on how use eBooks, etc.), which connect people with library resources through participatory experiences. But in Chinese public libraries, programs primarily take the form of lectures given by experts on topics of interest to older adults.

Although I did not get to take a break during the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s certainly worth it. Besides successful data collection, I learned a lot observing how libraries in these two countries operate. 🙂

QQML 2013

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Last week I was in Rome attending the 2013 International Conference on Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Libraries (QQML), where 288 papers from all over the world were presented, covering a wide variety of topics in LIS. I had a great time talking to librarians, educators and researchers from different countries and learning about their research. Two of my old friends from Chapel Hill were also there – it’s been six years since I last saw them, and it was just wonderful to see them again.

The papers that interested me most were the ones about library assessment and valuation. Recently I have been thinking about developing a course entirely on library assessment. This topic has been a component in many courses in our program, but I think it is important enough to spend a full course on it. More and more libraries, especially academic libraries are facing increasing pressures to establish their relevance and value, and assessment is critical in this process.

Here are a few papers about library assessment that I enjoyed:

  •  A survey study to examine students’ use of an academic library, its resources and spaces, and their engagement and persistence at UT Austin (by Meredith Taylor).
  •  A project using the Understanding Library Impacts (ULI) protocol to assess library contributions to undergraduate  student learning at Barnard College (by Derek Rodriguez and Lisa Norberg).
  •  A study using the MISO survey to assess the quality and effectiveness of library services (by David Consiglio, Katherine Furlong and Gentry Holbert).
  • The single or joint use of qualitative and quantitative metrics to support library accreditation efforts, funding requests and assess user needs and expectations ( by Michael Maciel).
  • The best practices of data visualization and examples of how some of them have been applied in libraries (by Rachel Besara).

There are also a couple of papers about health information access that caught my attention. This is an area that I wish to further explore. I just learned this morning, my first paper in this area, “Preparing Public Librarians for Consumer Health Information Service: A Nationwide Study”, co-authored with Dr. Van Ta Park, has been accepted to publish in Library and Information Science Research. Van and I will also discuss ideas of developing grant proposals together to fund our collaborative research pursuit down the path of health information.

Overall, I had a great time at QQML 2013. Now with all the ideas and inspirations grained from the conference, I’m going to have a very busy summer.