Learning at a Distance
and Library Use: Open University
Students and Libraries

T.D. Wilson


When the Open University was preparing to begin its first academic year, in 1971, public librarians voiced their concerns about the probable impact of the needs of students upon their collections (1) (2), and the general attitude of university librarians was not encouraging. As student numbers increased, those librarians who, anticipating a large demand for the University's academic material, had taken steps to purchase Open University recommended texts, discovered thatthe demand made on them by Open University students was less than anticipated.

Since those early days, and in a time of increasing financial stringency, librarians have been understandably reluctant to commit scarce resources to meeting the ill-defined and uncertain needs of the Open University minority readership group.

In 1975, a general study of the use of libraries by Open University students in the Yorkshire Region was reported (3). This was part of a broader study of the potential for co-operation among libraries in Sheffield (4) and it noted that:

...OU students used fewer libraries than any other group... including academic administrators: almost one third used no library at all for study.

Almost all the students covered by that Survey were taking second level courses. (NOTE: There are four levels of course in the Open University: the Foundation level, at which students begin their studies; second, third and fourth levels. The third and fourth levels are required by students to complete degrees of Honours classification).

The Survey suggested that library use might increase at higher levels of study. Factors such as the general expansion of courses, as the University moves to the completion of its undergraduate academic profile of course, and the development of project-based study, particularly as a component of third and fourth level courses, were identified as likely to be important influences on students' use of libraries.

The investigation reported here was carried out specifically to discover the effect upon the use of libraries of higher level courses, which required either the preparation of Course projects, or detailed investigation of source mate- rial. The courses covered were:

  • A401: Great Britain 1750-1950: Sources and historiography (19)
  • D291: Statistical sources 1 (34)
  • D301: Historical data and the social sciences (16)
  • D331: Public Administration (13)

Method of Investigation

Three regions of the OU co-operated in the investigation: the Northern Region, the Yorkshire Region and the South Eastern Region. A question- naire was designed, in co-operation with representatives of these regions and the Institute of Education Technology of the Open University. The question- naire was sent to all students taking the courses listed above in each of the three regions: that is, 134 questionnaires were sent out. The response rate was 61.2% with one follow-up letter. The 82 responses were distributed over the four courses as shown in parentheses in the table above.

It must be emphasised here that this investigation was regarded as an exploratory study, intended to test the method used and to determine whether a more comprehensive investigation covering more courses and all regions would be worthwhile. Consequently, the data are not amenable to statistical manipulations such as tests of significance. The conclusions presented must be taken to be hypotheses requiring further testing.

Use of Libraries and other Information Resources

The earlier study mentioned above showed that an OU student used an average 1.5 libraries; in the investigation reported here, the average was 2.4, or to put the point another way 44% of the students surveyed had used 3 or more libraries. The questionnaire also sought information on the number of other information resources used (such as archives collections, record offices, etc.) It was anticipated the highest use of these resources would be made by A401 students and this proved to be the case: of the 73 resources cited, 33 (45%) were cited by these students. 45 students (55%) cited no resource other than libraries'; thus the average number of resources used by those who cited them was 1.6. These figures suggest support for the propostion that OU students on higher level courses are more likely to require access to libraries than are first and second level students.

The types of libraries used are shown in Table I below: as reported in the earlier study, the commonest type of library used was the public library, but a much larger percentage of students reported using university libraries (11% compared with 2% in the 1975 study), and polytechnic or college libraries (11% compared with 6%). The regional differences are also shown in Table 1: there is little to comment upon here, except that students in Yorkshire were more likely to have access to a university library, students in both Yorkshire and the Northern region were more likely to use a polytechnic library, and students in the South East were more likely to have access to a college library. This undoubtedly reflects the distribution of different types of libraries in the three regions.

Table 1: Use of Different Kinds of Libraries
Library TypeNorthernYorkshireS.E. RegionTotal

Over the three regions, 73 different specialised resources of material were used, distributed over the four courses as follows: A401 - 33 resources cited; D291 - 14; D301 - 20; D331 - 6

The surprise here was that D291 students cited quite a large number of specialised collections: this was subsequently explained by the frequency with which these students reported that libraries often failed to provide the specialised statistical source materials they required and, clearly, such students turned to alternative sources of supply.

The types of resources used proved very difficult to classify, but an attempt has been made in Table 2 below, which shows that a very wide variety of resources was tapped by students in pursuit of special material, with an anticipated large proportion of the demand being directed at record offices.

Table 2: Types of Specialised Resources Used
 No. of times cited
Type of resourceNorthernYorkshireS.E. RegionTotal%
County/city/public record offices or archives collections9782431
Local government office archives and libraries8341519
Church/parish/religious sect archives and records1651216
Local museums, historical societies or charities22268
Government departments, local and national offices12145
Individuals and family records2245
Local and national political party records223
Local newspapers1123
* This category included building societies, schools, British Transport historical records, Dover Harbour Board records, professional institutions, and special collections in universities.
¢ The discrepancy between this figure and the 73 cited earlier is explained by eight students citing the same sources.

Frequency of Visits to Libraries

An attempt was made to obtain information on how frequently students visited libraries in the course of their studies. The results are reported in Table 3. The clustering of responses in the second response category suggests that this question did not discriminate effectively among different frequencies of use. Any follow-up survey on a broader scale should either provide more response categories or ask the respondent for an estimate of the number of visits made.

Table 3: Frequency of Visits to Libraries.
 No. of Students Reporting Use
Frequency of visits toNorthernYorkshireSouth-eastTotal
each library usedNo.%No.%No.%No.%
One visit4991118213115
A few visits (2-10)27573846425010750
Several visits (11-20)613232816194521
Many visits (>20)102112158103014

The regional differences in Table 3 may not be statistically significant, but it is interesting to note that a higher proportion of students in the South-East made only one visit to particular libraries, whereas, in the North and in Yorkshire, a higher proportion made more than ten visits. This may be explanied by students in the South-East needing to try more libraries before they found what they wanted and by student in the other two regions having easier access to big city collections in Newcastle, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield.

Library Services

Respondents were asked to identify the specific library service they had used. Nine response categories were used as shown in Table 4.

Table 4: Library Services Used
 Number & Percentage of Students
Library Service UsedNo.%No.%No.%No.%
1. Use of reading space2292269326877490
2. Borrowing set books833134610333138
3. Borrowing background reading1458217520675567
4. Using reservation service114614509303442
5. Using reference service1979258925836984
6. Conducting literature search1458165718604858
7. Seeking guidance from staff1979248621706478
8. Obtaining photocopies1250155417574454
9. Other services*518413911
* Use of Other Services: Microfilm reading machine; Obtaining material not on open access; Asking library to obtain reference material not held in stock; Obtaining microfilm copies of past editions of local newspapers; Obtaining copies of 19th Century newspapers

The inter-regional differences in the table are small and probably not significant: students in Yorkshire were more likely to borrow set books, those in the Northern region less likely to borrow background reading and those in the South East less likely to use the reservations service and to seek guidance from the library staff.

The comparison of these data with those reported by Marsterson and Wilson is interesting, bearing in mind that in that earlier study the students were taking second-level courses. Table 5 below compares the data. The reference numbers are those from Table 4.

Table 5: Services used — comparison of studies
 % of students citing service
ServicePresent studyMarsterson & Wilson

There are virtually no similarities in the two sets of data: possibly an indication that the needs of the two sets of students are different, and supporting the hypothesis that students taking higher level courses, particularly where there is an element of individual project work or research inquiry involved, do have more complex and different information needs from those taking second level courses.

Problems and Difficulties of Access and Use of Libraries

OU students are part-time students, whether they are housewives, teachers, accountants, bankers, labourers, farm workers, or whatever. Consequently, it is not surprising to find that opening hours and factors associated with travel- ling times and costs are the most frequently cited difficulties in actually getting into a library: together these were cited 51 times, although 31 stu- dents (38% of respondents) cited no difficulties.

Once in a library, the principal problem experienced was inadequate stock: this was cited as a problem on 19 occasions. Other problems of lesser signifi- cance included delays in reservations and inter-library loans (6 mentions), uninformed or unhelpful staff (7 mentions) and difficulties of access to ma- terials through, for example, poor cataloguing (6 mentions). 41 respondents (50%) cited no problems of use.

Similar, but fewer, problems were cited by the users of specialised re- sources, although again 24 of these users (53%) cited no problems. The most commonly cited problems were opening hours (6 mentions), lack of co-op- eration in providing facilities for research, chiefly on the part of churches (5 mentions) and unavailability of required material (4 mentions).

Successes in Library and Information Resources Use

The questionnaire asked for examples of 'outstanding success' in the use of libraries and other information sources, "0utstanding" was left deliberately undefined in order to discover what expectations students had of libraries.

Table 6: 'Successes' in library use.
 No. of times cited in relation to:
Categorylibrariesother resources
Knowledgeable and helpful staff 288
Good resources126
Prompt reservation service6
Good access to equipment4
Good inter-library loans service1
Comfortable working atmosphere1

As the table shows the helpfulness and expertise of library staff was readily appreciated by students. Only two types of success were cited by those using specialised resources, and these two accounted for the majority of responses under this heading. 49% of those using libraries and 71% of those using other sources mentioned no outstanding successes.

Sources of Help

In the third part of the questionnaire information was sought on the guidance students obtained on information resources, libraries and their use. Table 7 shows that the most helpful sources of guidance were course study guides, other written course material, and course tutors. From the librarian's point of view it is surprising, perhaps, to find that the OU broadcasts on libraries were either not used, or found not to be helpful. However, it should be borne in mind that these programmes are intended for students new to the OU, and the majority of the students surveyed were following courses at third or fourth level.

Table 7: Sources of help in deciding what information was needed and how to gain access to resources
  Not HelpfulHelpfulNot Used
SourceRespondents (n)%%%
1. Course Study Guide8213.479.37.3
2. D291 Set Book34*38.332.329.4
3. Other written course material783.880.815.4
4. Course-related radio programmes7834.625.739.7
5. Course-related TV programmes7940.521.537.9
6. Course Tutor819.861.728.4
7. OU Special Broadcasts on libraries7912.720.267.1
8. Regional Office792.55.092.5
9. Tutor-Counsellor795.07.587.5
10. Other students802.5 10.087.5
11. Other sources**18 0.0100.0
* This question applicable only to D291 students.
** D301 Set Book; D301 Introductory letter; D331 Set Book; Archivists/Librarians; Local Historian; AIOO Summer School Library Instruction; Course Team member at Summer School; Surrey University course on 'Primary resources'; Day School; Colleagues at Polytechnic; Interested individuals; Research material.

In the case of those courses with associated projects or special studies, most students chose their topic as a result of some local interest, job related interest, or other personal interest (58% of those responding to the relevant question) a further 42% followed the advice of their course tutor. (Respondents could cite more than one source in relation to this question and those that followed.) Once a topic was chosen, students tended to rely upon written sources and tutors' advice in finding out what special information would be needed for their project: 23% cited course material as a source of help, 25% background reading and 29% advice from tutor.

When it comes to locating the needed material, the advice of librarians, archivists and (in one case) a museum curator was cited most frequently (27% of the relevant respondents), followed by actual visits to libraries and other collections (23%).

Suggestions for Improvements

It was envisaged by the researchers that the responses to the questions which sought the students' ideas on improvements in services, on improvements in ccess, and on improved guidance and advice, would prove to be the most interesting and, potentially, the most useful responses. This proved to be the case and, although not all respondents answered these questions, those who did provided some genuinely useful ideas.

Ways of improving access to libraries and other information resources

In this, and in the next two sections, respondents were asked to reply in terms of what the OU could do and what libraries could do. The idea most frequently suggested for OU action (13 responses) was that students should be provided with regional information about libraries, record offices and other information resources showing hours, principal strengths, special collections and rules about access. In fact, at the time of the Survey, several Open University regions, including Yorkshire were already engaged in the preparation of such guides.

The second most commonly cited idea (10 responses), more difficult, and, perhaps, impossible to achieve was that the OU should obtain blanket permission for OU students to have access to University, Polytechnic and other academic libraries. The difficulties involved in achieving this are well-known, but it is worth recording that OU students do see themselves as tax-payers who have not, in the past, been able to make use of the educational resources their taxes have helped to provide.

A somewhat smaller number (8) of respondents asked that the OU should press for longer opening hours at evenings and weekends and this was also the most frequently suggested idea for action by libraries (12 responses). Some students showed that they were aware of the economic problems involved in this idea and added riders such as:

When economic circumstances allow
The OU should help resist cuts in local government spending that affect libraries'
No easy answer as any help would certainly involve spending more money...
Given limited finance these days they couldn't do much more.
...point out the folly of cuts in Government expenditure and urge with the OU for a greater expansion of library facilities . . .

Other ideas were cited less frequently and sometimes were rather impracticable; for example:

Advocate special leave allowance for research, enforceable by law, for OU students in full-time employment.

Ways of improving library and information services

The greatest number of ideas which were suggested here came under the heading of what libraries could do. The commonest request (15 responses) was for improvements in access to bookstock. A variety of means was suggested indicative of the difficulties OU students (and probably other users) experience: for example, more efficient cataloguing, better visual displays for the way reference material is organised, easier access to bibliographical reference sources, and, of course, contradictory ideas - buy background reading books and restrict them to use in the reference library, and provide facilities for borrowing important source books.

Ten responses related to improving the stock held: D291 students had evident difficulty in this respect, since seven of the ten suggestions related to improving holdings of statistical materials.

Eight respondents called for increased staff awareness of the problems of OU students, and six for improvements in the reservation services.

So far as action by the OU was concerned, eight respondents called for more information about the material they were likely to need for assignments and additional reading, and five suggested that libraries should be provided with more information about students' requirements.

Ways of improving advice and guidance about libraries and other information sources

Under this heading students clearly felt that the OU could do more than libraries. Eleven felt that more guidance could be given about information sources in more detail than suggested for the guide to resources mentioned about. They wanted, for example, a list of services availbale for research, an index to libraries with collections of special subject interest, and more detailed information on which libraries had which collections of statistics.

Eight students made specific points in relation to the A401 course, which, in general, referred to the need for very careful guidance in the choice of topic: for example, advise students to tackle something very local so that access to information can be easily obtained; stress the need to find out how much material is available before embarking on a project; provide more tutorial help; and 'a central OU advice service should be available for the tutor to call on if he needs to advise students in a subject area not his own'.

Other suggestions dealt with the need for more guidance about using libraries and about research methods, with the need to warn students more strongly about the need for access to a large library for certain courses, and with the need for more specific guidance in relation to assignments and courses in general.

The suggestions relating to libraries were less diverse: five respondents asked for more awareness of OU students' needs and greater accessibility of professional staff; five for improved information about resources; three for improved cataloguing and shelf guidance; and one issued an evident cry from the heart - 'Stop cutbacks on library resources.'


Previous research and the experience of librarians, as noted in the introduction, suggests that OU students at first and second levels make little use of libraries. The research reported here, though little more than a pilot study, points to an increased use of libraries and other information resources at third level, particularly in relation to project-based courses.

It is not surprising that this should be so. The OU student is not a full-time student: he, or she, is engaged upon some other activity while following an OU course. Consequently, the time available for study is restricted and, in the earlier stages of his studies the material that arrives through the mail, together with the basic texts that are purchased, are often more than enough to cope with. Authors of course units also make important reference material available to students, in the form of quotations from original sources, or paraphrases of ideas, in the body of the course unit. The students taking any one of the four courses considered in this piece of research, however, face a different situation, possibly for the first time. For these course they have to engage in some independent study or research, and libraries and other sources of information then assume a greater degreee of importance.

From the comments made by students, it is clear that they are sometimes ill-prepared for the effective use of libraries, archives, record offices and the like. It is clear, too, that sometimes their choice of subject for independent study has been made without due thought for the problems of gaining access to resources. The students themselves see the O.U., particularly through its regional offices, as having a responsibility to inform them fully about the resources that exist in the area, and the work being undertaken in some regions to compile and maintain guides to resources should go a long way towards overcoming some of the problems of knowing where to go for information.

However, for the regions, the task of building up a comprehensive picture of information resources available to their students will be a time-consuming and difficult one, for which they themselves are not adequately funded, in terms of resources, at the present time.

Knowing where to go, however, is a long way from making effective use of information resources and in this respect the O.U. broadcasts on libraries and their use, intended for students new to the O.U., fall short of the level of instruction required for students taking third level courses, and indeed, it is not clear whether broadcasts on general library themes can offer any meaningful guidance to students engaged on a wide diversity of specialised studies on higher level courses. At this level the student needs to know much more about resources that are particular to his needs and more about how to pursue his interests within the library. He needs to know, also, that some charges may be made for access to certain kinds of records, such as parish registers, and that photocopying charges may amount to considerable sums.

There is room, in other words, for detailed guidance before a student starts on a course that involves research on a limited theme. Whether television broadcasts, tutorial guidance, or special self-study packs, or a combination of these, is most appropriate must be a matter for the O.U. to decide. Whatever the decision, however, it is clear that the University has a wealth of experience to draw upon in that of students currently, or recently, engaged upon courses of these types.

Although the O.U. can do much more to make students better equipped to pursue independent study, it is clear that libraries and other information agencies can help to ensure that when a student arrives in a library, record office or other repository, he is/she is given the optimum amount of assistance to locate required material.

As some of the comments indicate, students are keenly aware that using libraries can be a time-consuming business, and good guiding and arrangement of stock, clear indications of what resources are available, and catalogues which are readily accessible, all help to make a students visit to the library potentially more valuable and purposeful.

Students are aware, that in a period of economic stringency, great improvements in resources are unlikely to be forthcoming. What has emerged from this small pilot study, is that much can be done, within existing resources, to improve information about access to and availability of library and specialised sources of information, for hard-pressed part-time students.


I should like to thank friends and colleagues in the Open University, Mr. Derek Gains, Mrs. Eveleigh Gans and Mrs Jill Ford for assistance with the research and the preparation of this paper.


1. This is a second level course, but one which specifically requires the student to make use of a reference library to trace certain statistical information.


  1. Horrocks, S. H. 'Books and the Open University' Library Association Record 72 (1970) 229-231
  2. Ashby, R. F. 'The Open University - a librarian's view' Library Association Record, 71 (1969) 326-327,345. See also: Critchley, W. 'The Open University - a challenge to the public library,' SLA News, 92 (1969) 325-328; Dickson, D. M. and Bolton, C. P. 'The Open University: a review,' Assistant Librarian 63 (1970) 170-172; 'Book provision for Open University courses,' Yorkshire Librarian, 41 (1971) 7-20; Underwood, G. M. 'First year at the Open University, Assistant Librarian, 64 (1971), 178-183; and Simpson, D. J. 'The Open University and United Kingdom public libraries,' Library Association Record, 75 (1973) 173-175
  3. Marsterson, W. A. J. and Wilson, T. D. 'Home-based students and libraries,' Libri, 25 (1975) 213-226
  4. Wilson, T. D. and Marsterson, W. A. J. Local library cooperation: final report on a Project funded by the Department of Education and Science. Sheffield: Postgraduate School of Librarianship and Information Science, 1974.

Manuscript of a paper published in Libri, 28(4), 1978, 270-282

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