Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

13 November 2014

BL Digital Scholarship survey: how are users engaging with our digital content?

 Our Digital Scholarship team has recently conducted a survey aimed  to collect data from BL users around awareness and adoption of digital tools and content in their research practice. A total of 1,649 participants took part in the survey helping us to have a clear insight into current digital research trends and determine which BL digital content, tools and services need to be prioritised and made more accessible across collections in response to the needs and expectations of our users.

Findings from survey show that users see the BL as playing a very important role in Digital Scholarship. Level of satisfaction with BL digital content and services are high but they could be further improved by the implementation of services that would allow users to:

      i.        have remote access to more BL digital content

    ii.        access content from their own devices

   iii.        use digital cameras in reading rooms for research purpose

The way researchers are engaging with digital content and services are changing since the last BL Digital Scholarship Survey back in 2011 and it is important for the Library to optimise its contents and eletronic services as to support the needs of researchers and to continue to have a positive impact amongst our readers. Compared to the previous survey, we observe that users are adopting portable devices (especially laptops, tablets and Smartphones) in larger scale to create, access and disseminate digital content. They are also making more use of social media to share their research interest with others.

Printed sources are still the most common medium for publication among respondents. There seems to be a low awareness of institutional repositories as many respondents don’t know whether their publication is available via a digital repository.   

Despite the increasing number of users accessing digital resources, it seems that a large proportion of researchers are not taking full advantage of digital tools when working with electronic data as they are approaching this type of content in the same way that they would access analogue resources. Use of digital tools to analyse digital information (e.g. data wrangling, textual and data analysis, etc.) is still relatively low among respondents.


In general, the results obtained from our users show that:

  • Respondent’s overall satisfaction levels with BL services and collections are very strong with a total of 91.8% participants saying they would recommend the Library (70.3% very likely and 21.5% quite likely) to others.
  • The Library is perceived as playing an important role in digital research by a high percentage (82.3%) of respondents. 53.3% rate the BL as a very important digital research library and 28.8% rates it as quite important. This is a significant increase (+ 34.5%) in the recognition of the BL as a very important institution for digital research since the last DS survey in 2011.
  • It is interesting to notice a sharp contrast between the scores given to the BL as a very important digital research institution (53.3%) and the level of satisfaction (15.9% very satisfied) in the use of Library’s digital services. This might be explained by the fact that, due to UK copyright laws and licensing agreements, most of the digital content available at the Library can only be accessed within the reading rooms and on BL computers. Remote access to more BL electronic resources and the option to view BL digital content on personal devices could considerably improve the ratings of BL digital services: 75% of users said they would like to access the Library’s digital content remotely and 55% said they would like to access BL electronic content from their own devices when working in the reading rooms.
  •  80% of respondents use laptops when researching in libraries. Other portable devices such as USB sticks (51%), Smartphones (40%) and Tablets (30%) are adopted by researchers when working at the BL or other similar institutions. There is a sharp increase in the use of personal electronic devices in research centres since last survey: in 2011 only 2.6% of respondents said they used Tablets, 10.1% used Smartphones and 43% used Laptops.
  • Digital cameras are also identified as an important device to be used in libraries. A quarter of respondents (25.4%) said they would like to use digital cameras while working in the BL reading rooms. In general, respondents seem to be strongly favourable to the use of digital cameras in BL reading rooms and have commented on the positive impact this would have in their work. Some suggested that the BL could charge a small fee to allow reproduction of collection items in personal cameras, as this could become an important source of revenue for the Library and would support digital scholarship among readers. Recent studies have highlighted other benefits in the use of digital cameras in libraries and archives, including the reduction in the risks of institutional copyright infringement.[1]
  • The vast majority of respondents (93.7%) are aware of or have used the Explore the BL , the main Library catalogue for printed and electronic resources. Awareness and use of other BL catalogues (SOCAM, SAMI, ESTC, etc.) is less common with an average of 30% knowing of or using them. The most popular BL digital resources are BL Digitised Manuscripts and the British Newspaper Archives: 66.7% are aware or have used these two resources. BL Sounds is the third most commonly used digital service: 49.7% of respondents said they were aware of or had used it in the past. Awareness and use of other digital resources related to specific BL programmes (UK Web Archive, Endangered Archives Programme, International Dunhuang Programme, BL Labs, etc.) are still low with an average of 15% of users knowing or using them. These results reflect the general findings on the previous survey. BL blogs is the only exception. In the last 2011 DS survey only 17.5% of respondents said they were aware of or had accessed our blogs – these results more than doubled to 37% in the current survey.
  • Research is mainly done on textual documents: printed text and manuscripts are the most common resources used by the respondents (almost 90% say they use printed text and 51.5% use manuscripts). The Web is the third most commonly used resource (43%). These proportions haven’t changed significantly since the last survey conducted in 2011. Since more research findings and databases are being made available for open access on the Web, it will be important to follow these measures in future DS surveys to see whether these proportions change. Other formats (sounds, images, maps, moving images) have a lower level of usage (between 5% and 10%) especially when compared to text-based resources.
  • When asked about preference of formats for digitisation, almost three quarters of respondents opted for textual sources (30.5% books; 24.5% manuscripts and 19.1% newspapers). This reflects the predominant use of text based materials by our users.
  • Respondents from the academic sector were the largest group (52%) in the survey. Postgraduate students were the highest specific in this category (31.6%).
  • The majority of respondents come from Arts and Humanities (58%) background, followed by Social Sciences (21.5%) and STM (13.1%).
  • Genealogy was most frequently mentioned as the primary interest amongst those with non-disciplinary interest.
  • Participants tend to conduct research predominantly by themselves on a non-collaboration context. Only 15.7% of the respondents said they were doing research as part of a collaborative project or network funded by research councils. There is a slight declined in collaborative research over the last 3 years when comparing these results with those obtained in the last DS survey: 17.7% said to be involved in collaborative research in 2011.
  • 47.1% of the respondents have published their research findings as journal articles, conference paper and/or printed book (in order of most frequent quoted publication format). Electronic formats such as Websites, e-journals and e-books are less frequently mentioned among the respondents indicating that printed text remains the most popular format for publication.
  • A significant proportion of respondents (44.4%) don’t know if their publications are stored in a digital repository. 30.2% said they had their publications stored in a electronic depository and 21.5% said that their publications are not available from a digital deposit. It will be important to track how these percentages change in future surveys since UK research councils are now requiring that any publication arising from UK funded research should be made available via digital repositories immediately upon the completion of subsidised projects.
  • Word processors, document sharing and citation and reference tools are the most popular digital resources used for research. Most of the respondents (66%) use Office applications at intermediate or expert level. Approximately 39% have used data and/or textual analysis in their work and many are aware about programming and only a small number of respondents (15.1%) have actually used programming for their research. More than half of respondents (54%) aren’t aware of data wrangling or scripting. Around 26% of respondents have used metadata in their work. These results show that the majority of users who access digital content are still manipulating digital data in a similar way to analogue resources. This might be explained by the lack of awareness on how existing digital tools and IT programmes (e.g. text-mining, visualisation tools, etc.) could assist researchers in obtaining more complex results from the digital sources they are using, especially when working with large datasets.
  • Almost half of respondents (45%) uses social network platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Academia, etc.) to communicate their research interests. 26% use blogs and 21% use microblogging (e.g. Twitter) to share information about their research areas. There is still a considerable number of respondents (35.3%) who don’t seem to engage with other researchers through social media. However, compared with the results obtained from the same question in the 2011 survey, there is significant increase in the number of people using social media, especially social networks (+26%), to share their research interests.
  • Nearly three quarters of respondents (73.2%) use passwords to access digital resources: Shibboleth (37.1%) and Athens (36.1%) were mentioned as the most common password systems used. This result is significantly different from the 2011 survey as there was a high use percentage of Athens (30.4%) in comparison to Shibboleth (11.7%). This landscape might change in the future as open access policies are being implemented in a growing number of academic institutions and research councils.
  • In general, respondents seem to be aware or quite aware of copyright issues for digital resources (80.7%). This hasn’t changed substantially since the last survey.

The information obtainted from this survey will be used to inform the BL Digital Scholarship strategy, helping us to have a clear insight into current digital research trends and determine which BL digital content, tools and services need to be prioritised and made more accessible across collections in response to the needs and expectations of our users. This data will also support BL collection development strategies, especially in the way we collect and give access to our digital resources.


[1] “Digital cameras lessen the repository’s risk profile, especially if it maintains  a “hands-off” approach towards the use of personal cameras. When a repository makes copies of copyrighted documents for users or provides equipment on which users can make their own copies, it runs the risk of engaging in direct and indirect copyright infringement.”(Lisa Miller et all, “Capture and Release”: Digital Cameras in the Reading Room, OCLC, 2010. Available at


 Aquiles Alencar-Brayner

Curator, Digital Research



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