Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Lisa Abrams, PhD

Second Advisor

James McMillan, PhD

Third Advisor

Adai Tefera, PhD

Fourth Advisor

Patricia Sobczak, PhD


The purpose of this study was to understand undergraduate students’ attitudes about search data privacy in academic libraries and their preferences for how librarians should handle information about what students search for, borrow, and download. This is an important area of study due to the increasingly data-driven nature of evaluation, accountability, and improvement in higher education, along with libraries’ professional commitment to privacy, which has historically limited the amount of data collected about student use. Using a qualitative approach through the lens of interpretive description, I used the constant comparative method of data collection and analysis to conduct semi-structured interviews with 27 undergraduate students at a large, urban public research institution. Through inductive coding, I organized the data into interpretive themes and subthemes to describe students’ attitudes, and developed a conceptual/thematic description that illustrates how they are formed.

Students revealed that a variety of life experiences and influences shaped their views on search data privacy in academic libraries. They viewed academic library search data as less personally revealing than internet search data. As a result, students were generally comfortable with libraries collecting search data so long as it is used for their benefit. They were comfortable with data being used to improve library collections and services, but were more ambivalent about use of search data for personalized search results and for learning analytics-based assessment. Most students expressed a desire for de-identification and user control of data. Some students expressed concern about search data being used in ways that reflect bias or favoritism. Participants had moderate concern about their library search data privacy being used by government agencies to protect public safety. Although some disagreed with the practice in concept, most did not feel that the search data would be useful, nor would it reveal much about their personal interests or selves. Students who were not comfortable with the idea of search data collection in academic libraries often held their convictions more strongly than peers who found the practice acceptable.

The results of this study suggest that academic libraries should further explore student perspectives about search data collection in academic libraries to consider how and if they might adjust their data collection practices to be respectful of student preferences for privacy, while still meeting evaluation and improvement objectives. This study achieved the intended purpose of contributing a foundational body of knowledge about student attitudes regarding search data privacy in academic libraries. It positions librarian-researchers to develop studies that further this line of inquiry in an area that has significant implications for both user privacy and libraries’ practices for assessment and evaluation.

Limitations of this study include its limited generalizability as a result of the qualitative research design, and the fact that it relied primarily on a convenience sampling method.


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