Research Methods in Information Science/The descriptive survey

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More and more librarians are called upon to justify the educational and cultural significance of library service. Limited resources often force librarians to focus critical eyes on library activities, technologies, procedures, and expenditures. Revised concepts of the functions of the library demand new policies and procedures, as well as re-examination of the old ones.

Besides their usefulness in producing generalizable, replicable knowledge, surveys can also aid in this process. A surveys can serve as the means to a critical examination of a library and its services.

The survey method[edit | edit source]

Goals[edit | edit source]

A survey has four goals:

  1. To collect all facts pertinent to the problem being attacked. Observations and opinions are useful, but they must be based upon factual evidence in order to be valid.
  2. The survey must be a critical analysis. All facts should be explored with an attitude of healthful curiosity, an attitude which is essential to progress. The library's services, its routines, the organization -- all should be questioned.
  3. The survey should be a means of interpreting the library to the public. And while people are often more attentive to the outside expert than to the employees of the library, an impartial investigation, even if carried on by the library itself, is likely to carry weight with administrators and public alike. If it is objective, thorough and impartial, it will provide effective publicity material, besides being a means of publicity itself.
  4. The fourth purpose of the survey is the analysis and interpretation of facts. It is at this point that the survey ceases to be a mere collection of data and becomes the foundation for future improvements.

Types of surveys[edit | edit source]

Criteria for the survey[edit | edit source]

A good survey must satisfy several criteria. First, the survey must be an exact and impartial analysis of facts. All pertinent information must be reported impartially and exactly, regardless of the conclusions pointed to. It is just as dishonest to conceal pertinent data as it is to alter them, and either procedure will make the survey a piece of vicious and misleading propaganda.

A second criterion is that the facts presented must be typical if the survey purports to reveal typical situations. This does not mean that unusual facts must be excluded, but it does mean that they should be clearly labeled as nonrepresentative. An entirely false picture may easily be presented by an accumulation of nontypical items, and it is, therefore, especially important to select those items which have a direct bearing on the points in question.

Third, the data presented must be reliable, and those which cannot be verified should be omitted. In cases where much material is obtained by sampling, it is important to see that a representative and reliable sample is secured.

Finally, the mere assembly of facts does not constitute a survey. Facts are useful only to the degree with which they are assimilated and organized into a logical and systematic whole. There is no substitute for the application of sound judgment and intelligence, and the absence of these factors cannot be compensated for by the completeness of the data or involved statistical manipulation.

Planning the survey[edit | edit source]

Administering the survey[edit | edit source]

Some surveys may not require a great amount of publicity for their success. Of this type, is the study of the library's administrative processes, designed primarily to aid the librarian in planning the work of the library more effectively. In most cases, however, the survey will receive better cooperation and will attain its aims only if it is widely advertised. One of the best methods for insuring cooperation and attracting attention is by the wise selection of those in charge. To give tone and authority to the investigation, it has sometimes proved satisfactory to have an advisory committee carefully selected from leaders in the community. While little actual service is expected of such a group, their very presence insures a favorable attitude and reception. Every community has leaders whose appointment to such a committee would be news.

A second means of stimulating community interest in the survey is by the use of local talent. Local specialists in fields to be touched by the survey may sometimes be of great help, and the more people concerned with the survey, the better the foundation for a favorable reception later by the community at large.

Organized groups in the community present a third avenue through which interest in the survey may be aroused. In some communities, such agencies have been the actual sponsors of the survey, and in most communities they can be of service in stimulating interest. They also may provide valuable feedback on your survey and its ability to reach all members of the population the survey attempts to reach.

The usual methods of library publicity should be utilized while the survey is being planned and while it is under way (the newspaper, radio, posters and bulletins). No opportunity should be lost to keep survey news continually before the community through these means. Ordinarily, news items will be well received by both the newspapers and the public.

The importance of preparing a favorable public opinion cannot be overstressed since a sympathetic attitude is essential if the survey is to seek data from outside the library. Since reliable and authentic information is hard to obtain from an apathetic community, publicity is a legitimate concern of the library embarking upon a survey. Moreover, acceptance of the findings and implementing of recommendations will depend upon the interest and enthusiasm of the community, whatever program is recommended.

Finally, the survey should never be considered the end but merely a means to an end: achievement of the library's social purpose. Facts and figures, no matter how carefully collected or thoroughly presented, have no meaning unless directed toward a central objective and analyzed and interpreted with sound judgment. This should be clearly understood at the beginning, while the survey is in progress, and when it is presented finally to the community. It is when each fact is analyzed, compared with other items and applied to the problems at hand that the survey achieves its real aim, the basis of future action and a more effective library program.

Special considerations for online surveys[edit | edit source]

A tool for creating online surveys.

The Community Backgrounds for Library Service[edit | edit source]

In order to answer the question, "What type of library service is needed in the community?" a great deal must be known regarding the area to be served. What are the important factors in the library's community environment? What social changes are emerging in this environment? These are questions which require historical, geographical and social data and, hence, an important part of an effective library survey is a study of the community itself.

Much information may already have been collected by other agencies, and while the sources for such information will vary with different communities, a few may be suggested:

  • Reports of the United States census
  • Reports of the local school census
  • Zoning commission
  • Local historical societies
  • Community groups
  • Oral histories
  • City tax authority
  • Law enforcement departments
  • Welfare agencies
  • Institutional research departments

Geographical factors[edit | edit source]

History[edit | edit source]

Populations of patrons and potential patrons[edit | edit source]

Demographic factors[edit | edit source]

Economic structure[edit | edit source]

Educational facilities[edit | edit source]

Local groups[edit | edit source]

Library Finance[edit | edit source]

Administration of the Library[edit | edit source]

Library Personnel[edit | edit source]

Library Use[edit | edit source]

Surveying the Community for Potential Library Use[edit | edit source]

Surveys of Larger Areas[edit | edit source]

Preparing the Report and Disseminating the Findings[edit | edit source]


  1. This chapter based in large part on McDiarmid, Errett (1940). The library survey : problems and methods. Chicago: American Library Association. Retrieved 10 November 2015.