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Findings from the Federal Documents User Needs Survey

By Valerie Glenn, Federal Documents Analyst, and Heather Christenson, Program Officer for Federal Documents and Collections

As reported previously, the HathiTrust US Federal Documents Program has been conducting a user needs investigation to learn more about users of HathiTrust’s federal documents. As part of this investigation, in April 2018 the HathiTrust Federal Documents Team conducted a survey of users, asking for feedback on their use of HathiTrust to access federal documents content. We received 185 responses, both from individuals affiliated with HathiTrust member libraries and from individuals who are not affiliated with HathiTrust. All respondents were from North America, primarily the United States. The majority of respondents were librarians or library staff.

HathiTrust: A “Go To” Place for US Fed Docs

Overwhelmingly, respondents have visited the HathiTrust Digital Library looking specifically for US federal documents. Of those who had not (3), 2 definitely used federal documents in their results and the other was not sure.

We also asked respondents if they thought of HathiTrust as a place to go for access to US federal documents. Of the 173 responses, 151 answered “yes” and 22 answered “no.” Among the popular ‘Yes” reasons were:

  • Lots of digitized publications available
  • HathiTrust has many documents that can’t be found elsewhere
  • Open/free access to the full text
  • Great access to older content
  • The libraries who deposit content with HathiTrust are also Federal depository libraries with large collections

 Among the popular “No” reasons were:

  • I try to find information through federal websites
  • I generally use HathiTrust for searching full text of older books
  • We can’t download them (this is primarily a concern of non-members)

Reasons to Access Federal Documents in HathiTrust

 We also asked why respondents use HathiTrust federal documents content. 144 respondents are looking specifically for federal documents; 108 use HathiTrust because the content is open/fully viewable. Another popular reason is to help with local collection management decisions - several respondents, regardless of affiliation, rely on HathiTrust content as a digital surrogate, particularly when making collection management (or collection retention) decisions.  

Other Themes From HathiTrust Fed Docs Users

 A final question asked respondents to share with us “anything else” about their use of federal documents in HathiTrust. This yielded a wide variety of responses; however, the following themes emerged:

  • Respondents have questions about the scope of federal documents content in HathiTrust, and about how comprehensive it is (overall, or in specific content areas such as Congressional hearings). Several users urged us to keep adding to the collection and make it more comprehensive.

  • Serials are challenging. Respondents commented on how difficult it can be to search for serials; related, multiple users mentioned that serials (and other items with the same title) should be grouped together on one catalog record.

  • Respondents would like more content open/fully viewable. There were also requests to remove download restrictions for those not affiliated with member libraries (all but one of those came from users not affiliated with a HathiTrust member).


Overall observations

Respondents consider HathiTrust a go-to place for older federal government documents. They like the ability to search the full text of many publications that aren’t digitally available anywhere else. At the same time, there are a lot of questions about the scope and comprehensiveness of the HathiTrust collection.

Many respondents use the HathiTrust copy as a digital surrogate and to help with collection management at their institution, regardless of affiliation with HathiTrust.

Criticisms centered around the quality of metadata. While some users appreciate being able to search by subject heading, the majority suggested improvements that could be made to the catalog records: adding a SuDoc call number; improving the way dates are recorded; having one record for a single title, not multiple records.

We plan to take survey results into account in planned and future projects such as the third phase of our user needs investigation, metadata improvement project(s), collection development efforts, and improvement of HathiTrust user services.

Thank you to all who participated in the survey!