Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Original Publication Date


Journal/Book/Conference Title

Library Assessment Conference 2020


This is the manuscript submitted as a contributed paper to the Library Assessment Conference 2020 Conference Proceedings, not yet published as of February 2021.

Date of Submission

February 2021


Purpose and goals

This paper presents the findings of a qualitative study on undergraduate students’ attitudes about search data privacy in academic libraries, and their preferences for how librarians should handle information about what they search for, borrow, and download. This is an important topic due to the increasingly data-driven nature of assessment in higher education, contrasted with libraries’ professional commitment to privacy which has historically limited the amount of data collected about student library use. Although the literature is rich with evidence of librarians’ commitment to user privacy, very few studies address user perspectives on this matter.

The central research questions that guided this study were:

  1. What are undergraduate students’ attitudes about whether academic libraries should collect and maintain user search data, and why?
  2. What are acceptable and unacceptable uses of students’ library search data according to undergraduate students, and why?
Design, methodology, or approach

Using a qualitative approach through the lens of interpretive description, I used the constant comparative method of data collection and analysis to conduct in-depth, semi-structured interviews comprised of questions and vignettes with 27 undergraduate students at a large, urban public research institution. Interview transcripts were data-rich and totaled over 700 pages. 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. Findings

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 and, as a result, 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 expressed concern about search data being used in ways that reflect bias or favoritism, and many were aware that privacy issues may be more significant for marginalized or vulnerable groups. Most participants had little 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 search data collection in academic libraries often held their convictions more strongly than peers who found the practice acceptable, and often identified as members of vulnerable or oppressed groups. Practical implications or value

The findings of this study provide some of the first in-depth, exploratory information about student perspectives on search data privacy in academic libraries. The results raise questions useful for shaping future library policies related to privacy. For example, who should librarians primarily focus on when developing privacy policies: the many, or the few? Libraries should investigate whether privacy policies should be based on the most conservative privacy related views held by students, even when those views are infrequent, or more liberal privacy views held by many. This question, and others raised in light of the results of this study, position librarian-researchers to further this line of inquiry in in order to inform libraries’ practices for assessment and evaluation.

Is Part Of

VCU Libraries Faculty and Staff Publications