Providing Digital Reference Services to Young Adults

By Anwen Boyd


This paper was originally written in April 2003 to fulfill the requirements of the Digital Reference class (LIS 536) at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta. It was put into HTML format to fulfill the requirements of the Capping Exercise (LIS 600) in March 2004.






A Definition of Young Adults

Why Study Digital Reference Services for Young Adults?

Information Needs of the Young Adult

Information Behaviour of Young Adults

Optimizing Digital Reference Services for Young Adults


Appendix: Useful Digital Reference Information Sources for YAs

Works Cited & Works Consulted




            This paper will explore the information needs and behaviours of young adults (YAs) and go on to suggest ways in which digital reference services can be optimized for this group. The discussion will include suggestions for the organization of YA digital reference services including how reference interviews should be conducted. For the purpose of this paper digital reference will be defined as reference service that is provided using electronic resources and/or via electronic means. The discussion will include suggestions for the use of software and hardware and a list of electronic resources suitable for YAs including websites subscribed databases (see Appendix). I will begin this paper by defining my user group and explaining my reasons for studying this particular group of users.


A Definition of Young Adults                                                                                   

            It is difficult to find a consistent definition in the library literature for what constitutes a Young Adult. One of the reasons that it is difficult to define YAs is that, like any group, it is impossible and irresponsible to assume that all the members have the same needs. For ease of communication and organization I am treating the group as a cohesive whole in this paper but it is important to keep in mind that these are only generalizations and that, as in any reference interaction, decisions must be made and service provided on an individual basis. Having said that, however, it is possible to use observed trends in the information needs and behaviours of YAs to define a broad base upon which to build YA digital reference service.

For this paper I have chosen to define YAs as those in the teen years (i.e. 13-19 years) as this group generally share enough information needs and behaviours that digital reference service can be provided for them in very similar ways. One similar characteristic that the literature suggests as consistently important to the members of this group is the need to feel connected to other individuals including peers, parents and other adults (Amey, Caywood, Rolinson and Rosalia). Another similarity this group shares is that their information needs can be divided into educational needs and personal needs. For reasons of brevity I will limit my scope to those YAs who attend post-secondary education after high school and are therefore in college and university while still within my defined age range. In both the personal and educational areas of their lives, this group of individuals is facing a very steep learning curve and this makes the provision of effective reference service highly relevant.


Why Study Digital Reference Services for Young Adults?

    In addition to the vast amount of information that a YA needs, there are several other reasons why it is useful, interesting and important to study and plan the provision of digital reference service for them. For instance, this is a group of people that are generally open to and familiar with technology (Caywood). It seems ideal to provide this “Net Generation” (Caywood) with technology based reference services. In fact, some contend that the future of libraries depend on this generation’s acceptance of their relevance (Caywood). It seems, therefore, that using technology to get and keep these users using the library is an ideal fit. It is commonly known that it is during the teen years that people are most likely to stop using the library despite their high information needs. Therefore, it is worth investing in digital reference services if they help the library maintain a connection with this group of users. The final reason I will give for studying this user group is that there really is not a lot of research on them. While this is slowly changing, I would still agree with Chelton & Thomas that many of the “library studies dealing with youth issues” are “scarce, fragmented and sometimes flawed” (7). This user group is too important to the future of the libraries and too important as developing individuals to be ignored.


Information Needs of the Young Adult

            Before I am able to discuss the information behaviour of YAs I need to provide a brief introduction to their information needs because they inevitably inform their behaviours. As previously stated I have divided the needs of the YA into two categories; educational needs and personal needs. The following two sections will provide some insight into the composition of these needs.


            Education Based Information Needs of the Young Adult

            I define education based information needs as those that stem from school assignments. These assignments will vary in subject matter whether in grade school or the first few years of a post-secondary education. They may be “assignment centred” needs in which their instructor has provided them with a highly focused information retrieval based task (Fidel et al., 28). An example of this would be an assignment that involved finding the vital statistics (i.e. average length, average weight, habitat etc…) of the humpback whale. In contrast, are assignments based on the retrieval and analysis of information such as essays. Regardless of which type of assignment is being completed, the information will need to be current and/or accurate and more than one source of information is often needed. An important consideration in dealing with this group of users is that they often need to complete assignments for more than one subject area at the same time. This expands their information needs significantly and has great implications for the best ways for them to seek and retrieve information. The work done by Fidel et al. and Waldman also indicates that digital information sources such as the Internet and electronic database searching are becoming essential for the completion of education based tasks.


            Personal Information Needs of the Young Adult

            While the educational information needs of the YA are certainly diverse, their personal information needs are practically infinite. In order to examine them I looked at research articles as well as the two teen magazines Your Magazine (YM) and Cosmo girl (CG). I decided to analyze the magazines after reading the statistic that 66% of 11-18 year olds read magazines and 77% of 11-18 year old females read “teen magazines dedicated to fashion and beauty" (Survey). I therefore decided that, while looking at the teen magazines would skew my impressions towards the female population of YAs, it would still be a useful exercise in examining the format and information that this population seeks out. From these two sources (i.e. the magazines and the research articles) I have determined categories of information needs that occurred most frequently and I will briefly discuss each of these.

            In Rolinson’s study, 40% of YAs reported that health information was “very important”, 54% said is was “important” and only 6% of her sample reported it to be “not important” to them. The importance of health information for YAs was reinforced by my own informal textual analysis of the teen magazines. In addition to several ads in both magazines for health related products, both magazines have health related articles and/or sections. Perhaps most telling is the “Ask Anything” page of YM where readers’ questions are printed and answered. All three of the questions asked were related to health and included the topics of bullying, the addictive properties and safety of taking ecstasy and condom use.

            These questions also relate to another common information need of YAs and that is information relating to relationships. This includes everything from romantic relationships to friendships to parental relationships. It is repeated several times in the literature that  teens value interpersonal connections (Amey) so it follows that information in this area is important. It was difficult, however, to find research that went beyond acknowledging the need and actually explored it. I went back to my teen magazines and found that they were flooded with articles, question pages and quizzes related to relationships. YM has a regular section called “Boys” while CG’s equivalent is called the “All About Guys Section”. There were at least 5 articles per magazine that related to the males including pieces such as “The Strange Attraction of Bad Boys” (YM, 80), “Grade the Guys” (YM, 82), the “Guy Magnet Cheat Sheet” (CG, 66) and “Make Your Guy Want to Commit” (CG, 118). Information friendships is also abundant and represented by pieces such as the quiz “Are you and your best friend disgustingly close?” (YM, 40).

            Another common information need of YAs identified in the literature includes information on entertainment and recreation (Gorman, Purdy, Rosalia & Survey). This includes information about celebrities, new film and music releases, travel, hobbies, books and games. Once again, the ads and articles in the teen magazines supported the research. While YM has an actual “Stars Section”, CG had articles such as “Eminem: See His Secret Romantic Side” (114) and pages just for music (48) and movie (65) information.

            The final category of personal information needs that I identified was career/education information. This is different from education information needs in that it is composed of information about careers and schools that is used to help YAs make decisions regarding where they should go for post-secondary information and what program they should take once they get there. These are needs identified in the research by both Julien and Gorman. They are also represented in the teen magazines. Both YM and CG have college sections, which include short pieces such as “How to choose the perfect college for you.” (CG 106).


Summary of the Information Needs of Young Adults

            I have identified the information needs of YAs as falling into one of two categories; educational and personal. I realize that the needs I have identified are by no means comprehensive for the entire group, but instead indicate trends that can be used to look at information behaviour and ultimately implementing digital reference services. Indeed, the needs I have identified here will inform the information behaviours that I discuss in the following sections.


Information Behaviour of Young Adults

            For the purpose of this paper I will use the term information behaviour to include both information seeking and information retrieval. In order to discuss the information behaviour of YAs I have decided to divide the behaviours into two categories. The first I will call “technology based” information behaviour. This category includes primarily the use of computers to access information. The second category I will call “Non-Technology Based” and this includes the use of traditional print materials as well as interpersonal communication as information access points. I will discuss each if these methods in detail in the following two sections.


            Technology Based Information Behaviour of Young Adults

            Phrases such as “Web Savvy” (Waldman) are used repeatedly in the literature to describe the nature of YAs. This is certainly reinforced by Waldman’s findings that 73% of freshman use the Internet daily and 94% of them have a computer at home. In addition, 67% of them use Internet based information for their school essays as opposed to 20% who report using non-electronic sources. This is an indication that YAs like to use the Internet as an information source I will next look at how they use the Internet and why it fits with their information behaviour.

            Fidel et al’s study of the web searching behaviour of high school students is a good place to start looking at how YAs use the web. Several behaviours were identified in their study and I will discuss them briefly here. One of the first things they observed was that students enjoyed the speed and ease with which they could find information on the web without having to prepare (27). Indeed the “law of least effort” (32) was identified several times by the students as their preferred way of finding information. This can be described as the YA’s desire to find an all-in-one source of the information they need; a desire  which is understandable if you consider all the information needs that they are trying to fulfill.

            It was observed that the students in Fidel et al’s study carried out very focused searches (28). This can be explained by the fact that they were looking for information to very specific questions given to them by their teacher. In other words, “Their purpose was to find lines on the screen that would answer the questions in the assignment” (28). This indicates that focused web searching is a behaviour that is used to answer the assignment based educational needs questions identified above. The assignment formed the basis for the search terms they used, was used “as filtering criteria” and any information that related to the question was recorded regardless of the format or relevance of the site to the question (28). It is also important to note that most students started their search with a URL or a keyword search. In this educational scenario the students were very focused and driven by the assignment criteria more than anything else.

            This study also revealed that the students were very quick to decide whether a site was credible or comprehensive enough to meet their needs (29). Using the graphics and the amount of text on the first page the students would determine if the site would meet the teacher’s requirements of being current and accurate and their criteria that all the information they need be all on the same page (28).

            It was also important for students to have a “landmark” or “comfort zone” to return to when their quick navigation got them lost (29). This landmark was often the results page of their search, which they would return to throughout their search to select something new (29). Once again, graphics were identified as important to the students as they often used them to identify pages they had visited or their landmark (29). If this did not work the students would start a new search and in doing so displayed one of two behaviours (30). They would either change their topic (i.e. start looking for information about dogs instead of cats) or use new vocabulary to describe the same topic (i.e. search canine instead of dog). While the latter is a useful strategy the former displays a need for Internet searching instruction and the need for aids such as encyclopedias and dictionaries was indicated (34).

            A particularly interesting behaviour that the students exhibited was that they were not afraid to ask for help. While they asked the teacher and the librarians to help if they were available, it is interesting to note that “When looking for assistance, students most often asked whomever was closest them, frequently another classmate.” (30). This behaviour demonstrates the YAs desire for and use of interpersonal communication in meeting their information needs. It is particularly interesting “that their first choice for help was the librarian” (30) who they believed “knew all the answers” (31). Although they most frequently consulted the librarian regarding ways to search for information, they also asked her about the assignment itself (31). Finally, while most of the students wanted very specific types of help, one girl preferred to receive guidance that would allow her to do more of the work herself (31). This is a good example of the diversity of information behaviour that exists among YAs.

            At the end of the study all of the students said that they would use the Internet for their next assignment because it was easier and faster than finding information in a book. (32). It is important to note, however, that half of the students also indicated that they would use print sources that they knew already contained the information that they needed (32). In either case, students prefer to use the resources that provide them with the information they need in one source that is easy and fast to use.

            Another YA use of the web that is discussed several times in the literature is that of Chat Rooms and E-mail as ways to connect with peers and share both school related and personal information needs. Caywood explains that the “Net Generation” (those who will be teenagers from 2002-2012) will be defined by the internet and the personal networks available on it in the same way that the boomer generation was brought together by television.

            Purdy discusses chat and IM and its impact on teens’ information behaviour in more practical terms. For example, one girl gathered most of her information about a trip to Australia by chatting to Australian teens. Waldan and Gorman identify email as one of the major reasons why YAs use the library and Rosalia reports that chatting with others is not only a direct source of information but is a motivation for YAs to seek out other forms of information such as books. She also says of YAs that “Growing up with the Internet, they depend on it for information, recreation and the all-important teen social connectivity.” Clearly chat and email are ways in which the information needs and the information behaviours of YAs are well integrated. They can fulfill their overarching need for personal connection while at the same time accessing the information they need and want. I find it particularly interesting that YAs do not use chat rooms just for sharing personal information. They  are also used to discover information about such things as writing guides, book discussions, hobbies and presumably homework assignments (Rosalia).

            The last technology based information behaviour that I want to discuss is the use of electronic databases. Waldman studied freshmen’s use of the Baruch College Library and its electronic resources. While not all of the students studied fall into the category of YAs, 77% were aged 17-21, so I thought it would be useful to explore this study. It is interesting to note that only 24% of the library users used the electronic resources and 21% used the library to email or chat. While these are not insignificant numbers, they are far outweighed by the 80% that used the library as a quiet place to study. It was also reported that 88% of the electronic database users were aware that they could access then from home, but only 50% did. Considering that 94% of this group had access to computers from home, it is interesting that more do not choose to use remote access. Regarding the actual use of the electronic databases, 61% described them as “somewhat easy or very easy”  but only 50% knew that there was a difference between electronic databases and the internet. The implication of this is that 77% of the students reported that they begin their research in the internet and that only 27% of them used the electronic databases available via the library to research their papers (Waldman). It was also reported that the freshmen who were the most regular library users were the ones most likely to know about and use the electronic resources. Given that electronic databases are both excellent sources of reliable information and a substantial financial cost to libraries, this study has strong implications for the provision of digital reference to this group of users.              


Non-Technology Based Information Behaviour of Young Adults

Both Waldan’s and Rolinson’s studies indicated that health information is not something that YAs looked for on the Internet. While Waldman’s article provided no explanation for this, Rolinson’s findings indicated that 27% of YAs prefer to seek health information from places such as doctor’s offices, 24% prefer to get the information form people, 32% prefer written sources and only 9% said they preferred multimedia sources including the internet. This a good indication that, while web based information is certainly popular among YAs, it is not the only way that they want to access information. In this section I will discuss some of the information behaviour of teens that exhibit that does not involve the use of technology.

Perhaps one of the most common information behaviours for YAs is attending classes. While formal education may not necessary be an enforced rather than chosen information seeking and retrieval behaviour, it is certainly one that YAs are familiar with. It is also true, however, that YAs do seek out classes as well. For example, the post-secondary students in Waldman’s study would have chosen to attend college and Gorman reports that teens attend computer classes held at the Austin Public Library. In fact, it is not difficult to identify a plethora of “non-school” classes attended by teens including music, dancing and sports to name just a few.

Print sources are also still considered to be a relevant information source for many teens. In the 1999 Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) survey of individuals aged 11-18 it was reported that “Seventy-two percent of the respondents said they read for fun when they have the time.” The reading materials identified in the survey were all paper sources including novels, magazines, newspapers, computer/electronics manuals and 48% of them “even [read] the back of cereal boxes”! It was the YALSA survey which also indicated that 77% of teenage girls read teen magazines. I decided at this point to look at the teen magazines and find out what characteristics defined them and what this might say about the information seeking behaviour of YAs.

My overall impression of YM and CG is that they look a lot like web pages. For example, both magazines rely heavily on graphics and eye-catching colour. They also contain relatively short bits of text interspersed with fact boxes and graphics. They are wonderful example of the “all-in-one” information package that the web is described as. While the content may be scant, it is possible to find health, college, relationship, style and entertainment information all between two covers. It is also important to note that the magazine’s web address is displayed on the cover of both magazines. In addition, on the edge of YM’s pages is a “navigation bar” that indicates the different sections of the magazine and highlights the section that you are currently in. If this sounds familiar that is because it is identical to a website navigation bar without the ability to hyperlink. So, while the statistics show that print sources are not irrelevant to YAs it would also appear that the print medium is having to compete with technology to provide YAs with the features they like such as those identified in Fidel et al’s study.


Optimizing Digital Reference Services for Young Adults

        Judging by the familiarity and acceptance that YAs seem to have for digital information sources, the provision of digital reference service to this group of users is an exciting endeavour that seems filled with endless opportunities. In this section I will discuss simultaneously suggestions presented in the literature as well as my own suggestions for optimizing digital reference services to YAs.


            Suggestions for Organizing Digital Reference Services for Young Adults

            The first and most important thing that libraries need to do in order to provide digital reference services to young adults is to have a strong web presence. The research indicates that YAs are both comfortable and reliant on the web to meet their information needs. This website should act as the starting point for all digital reference interaction and be the focus around which services are organized. This not only provides YAs with an information source that they are already comfortable with, but provides them with a medium which they see as relevant, useful and current (Fidel et al, 32). The design of this site should take into consideration the website features that YAs have identified as being most useful. For example, there should be a library logo or other prominent graphic to act as a landmark on the site and provide the graphical presence that YAs value. The site should also provide a search path at the top of each page so that the YAs quick and reactive search patterns can be traced easily (Fidel et al, 29). The site should also be highly interactive. While it is true that animation, sound and video are also highly valued by YAs (Rosalia), these are all features that will slow the site down and therefore fail to meet the YAs need for speed. Finally, the site should not only be a host to the various services provided for YAs by the library, but should contain links to a variety of web based sites and databases as well as relevant subscribed databases that will address the variety of educational and personal needs discussed earlier in this paper. For examples of sources that would be useful in providing digital reference service to YAs see the Appendix of this paper. The goal should be to create the “all-in-one” resource that YAs are so fond of using.

            I have suggested that the website should be the hub around which digital reference service to YAs should revolve and those services differ depending on the type of library we are talking about. In a public library setting, I think it is important that teens have their own physical space that includes access to their own computers and access to a YA librarian who is there to provide reference service that includes instruction in navigating and using digital reference sources. In order to create such an ideal scenario it may be necessary for the library to seek out funding from private and/or public sources to provide the necessary hardware and software and while this takes hard work, energy and library resources the library community needs to recognize that YAs are the future of library use and any investment in them is an investment in the future of the library (Gorman).

            One service that could be provided by all libraries that serve YAs is the provision of training classes/sessions in the use of the Internet and electronic database searching. Both Fidel et al and Waldman suggest that some kind of formal training would be beneficial for many YAs. In fact, even if YAs were all proficient in searching it would still be beneficial to hold sessions that introduce them to the library website and the various information sources linked to them. Instruction of this type seems to me to be an excellent way to supplement reference services by making them and the librarian more visible and accessible. 

It occurred to me while I was reading the results of the YALSA survey that a solution for getting information to time strapped YAs may be to have a “push to desk top” service in which material such as online articles of interest are automatically emailed to the YA when they are received by the library. This type of service would probably be most useful in an academic library and could be simplified by subscribing to databases such as Lexis/Nexis which have this service built in.

Finally, I think the most important part of optimizing digital reference to YAs is to keep an open mind and thoroughly consider all possible information sources and  respect the variety of information behaviour that YAs engage in. For example, Gorman states that many of the Austin Public Library’s YA patrons that started off using the computers to play games are now using the computers to do research. Another controversial service that should be accepted is allowing YAs to use chat rooms on library computers (Gainor).  As we have seen, chat rooms not only provide a much needed interpersonal connection for YAs but they are also a place where information can be shared and literacy encouraged (Rosalia). By providing the computers for YAs to engage in an information behaviour that they already know is they like is also a useful, if not essential way of showing this generation that libraries are both relevant and essential in their lives and the information age (Caywood).

It may seem as though I am suggesting that libraries do a lot more work in order to serve YAs via digital reference and that is because I am! But that does not mean that librarians have to do all the work. An integral part of providing digital reference services is to involve the YAs themselves (Gorman and Rosalia). For example, have YAs right reviews of book or articles and post them to the library website or organize an e-zine with YAs contributing and running it (Rosalia). The library could also organize a YA listserv through which YAs could communicate about useful information resources. Gorman suggests using volunteer YAs to update and maintain the website as well as create content for it. This kind of involvement not only helps the library provide relevant service to YAs, but provides YAs with useful skills that can go on their resumes and school applications. These are only a few ways to get YAs involved with the development of digital reference services a library provides for them and it takes little imagination to come up with more.


Optimizing the Digital Reference Interview with Young Adults

            Judging by the information we have seen about the way YAs like to access information there are a variety of ways that the reference interview can be carried out when providing digital reference. First, we can look at the traditional in person reference interview. We have established that YAs value interpersonal communication so the one-on-one, in-person interview at the library’s reference desk is not irrelevant when providing digital reference service. This type of interview can be used to determine the user’s level of digital information knowledge as well as provide an instructional opportunity for future digital information use. The reference interview may include a demonstration of an electronic database or the suggestion of a website to try. There is no reason why this “low tech” communication cannot be used effectively to provide digital reference service in a way that is both helpful and appreciated by the YA.

            The fact that YAs are so familiar with technology, however, also means that electronic reference interviews can be valuable. One way this can be achieved is via an email system in which the YA could email a question to the reference desk inbox and wait for it to be opened, answered and sent back. While this is a cheap way to serve YAs electronically, it is difficult to conduct an effective reference interview in a short period of time. If money were available, the better option would be to purchase chat software that would allow the YA to enter into a chat session with the librarian and communicate with them in real time. While it would certainly take some practice for the librarian to be able to perform the same level of reference interview as they could in person, this is certainly the best way to conduct an interview using digital means. Another way to benefit from this type of reference interaction would be to purchase the kind of chat software that allows the librarian to effectively take over the YAs computer screen and demonstrate for them how to navigate the electronic resource they are suggesting they use.


            Summarizing Optimal Digital Reference Service to Young Adults

            Rather than reiterating what I have already said, I want to use this section to express my belief that effective digital reference service to YAs depends on the librarians that are running it. These individuals not only have to be aware of the latest trends in YA preferences, but they need to open minded and imaginative enough to find the part of those trends that can be used to optimize YA services.



        In this paper I have outlined the information needs and behaviours of YAs and how they can be met via the use of digital reference services. This is an area that is full of possibilities and I have not been able to mention all of them. However, I hope that I have indicated both the importance of providing digital reference for YAs and demonstrated how the two work well together.



Appendix: Useful Digital Reference Information Sources for YAs                                              

Paid Subscription Databases


§         Academic American Encyclopedia - good for students; includes images

§         Academic Search Premier - a multidisciplinary full text database

§         Access Science  - a full text, online version of the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology

§         Biography Resource Center - 150 000 biographical entries and full text articles on lives past and present

§         Health and Wellness Resource Center - a variety of drug and health information including some full text articles

§         What Do I Read Next? - a guide to fiction by type; includes young adult titles


Free Internet Information Providers 


§         Amazing Environmental Organization Web Directory <>- Earth’s biggest Environment Search Engine

§         College and University Ratings <>- rates post-secondary institutions; has links to international, American and Canadian rankings

§         CDNow <> - guide to recorded music and movies

§         How Stuff Works <> - explains how various bits of technology work

§         Internet Movie Database <> - a comprehensive guide to movies and actors

§         Read In <> - provides access to online book discussions with students, teachers and authors

§         TeenInk <> - a place for teens to submit their writing for web and print publication

§         Teen People <> - an online version of Teen People magazine.

§         The Online Books Page <>  -  free access to online books

§         Your <> - on online dictionary with other features like a grammar guide and a thesaurus




Works Cited  


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Waldman, Micaela. “Freshmen’s Use of Library Electronic Resources and Self-Efficacy.” Information Research 8.2 (2003).


YM (Your Magazine). Christina Kelly, Editor - in - Chief. New York: Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing, May 2003.



Works Consulted


Pickard, Alison Jane. “The Impact of Access to Electronic and Digital Information Resources on Learning 

Opportunities for Young People: A Grounded Theory Approach.” Information Research 4.2.


Purdy, Rebecca. “Winning Points with Wired Teens: How Do Public Libraries Score?.” Voice of Youth

Advocates 24.2 (2001): 112-13. Library Literature. Silver Platter. University of Alberta Lib.          


Stormont, Sam. “Going Where the Users Are: Live Digital Reference.” Information Technology and Libraries 20:3 (2001): 129-134. Library Literature. Silver Platter. University of Alberta Lib.




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