Tools for Running Online Surveys in Libraries

[This was originally posted on LITABlog as Online Surveys in Libraries: Getting Started.]

Surveys are everywhere. You go to a government website, a vendor’s blog, an organization’s page, or step into a building: “We just want a few minutes of your time.” A scattering of survey requests linger in my email: ACRL, RDA, data librarians, IndieGoGo, four campus programs, the International Librarians’ Network, Thompson Reuters, and Elsevier. And that’s just in the past month!

Then, when you try to actually open a survey, there are tiny little buttons: you have a large screen, but you can’t manage to hit any of them. There are pages and pages of Likert scales. Do they want your life’s story, told in rankings of five items and slider bars? They definitely want you to brainstorm for them, but who has time to think of the top 15 libraries in the world, ranked by specialization?

the survey in progress, by Jonathan Nalder (CC-BY-NC)

On Using Surveys Well 

If I sound skeptical of surveys, it’s because I am: People are over-surveyed. Organizations repeatedly survey-blast the same users, not caring about the value of each person’s time. Samples aren’t representative; results aren’t analyzed—we just present pie charts and summary graphs as if that’s all we can do. We use them to justify our existence, not to understand the word or improve services. In the hands of the wrong person, surveys can be deceptive tools.

And yet, I find mixed-method surveys to be tremendously useful for librarians, particularly if we’re exploring a new area on which there’s little to no data in the existing LIS literature. As Dwight B. King, Jr. writes for librarians:

Focus groups are effective in drawing out users’ true feelings, but because the group is small, it is difficult to make generalizations… Interviews are good for obtaining in-depth information, but… can be very time-consuming. Survey questionnaires are often the best choice for ‘an economical method to reach a large number of people’ with a large number of questions.”

So, surveys: use them with care. Make sure they’re necessary, and well used. Ideally we should be moving to well-designed national surveys on library issues, plus occasional targeted surveys at the local level.

But there is still a role for local surveys. And so, I’ll talk here about how I’ve used various survey tools in libraries, and end with some advice for when you create your own survey.

Choosing a Survey Tool

I’ve worked with SurveyMonkey, LibSurveys, SurveyGizmo, Google Forms, and Qualtrics. Most have a free/student option or trials, butinstitutional accounts offer many more features.

Google Forms: Free to anyone with a google account. It’s easy to create forms in Google Drive. I’d use short Google Forms to gather librarian preferences on an issue, as a pre-survey for library instruction to gauge student interest in various topics, or for thoughts from people who are using our trial databases. You’re not going to be able to do a lot of analysis, so keep it short and sweet, and download a summary report in PDF. You can also send responses to Google Sheets to analyze, and/or download to Excel from there.

SurveyMonkey: I’ve used the free accounts, which allow 100 responses, as well as paid accounts. This is a great tool if you’re starting small, and just learning to design and analyze surveys. I’ve used a paid subscription to survey different sets of students or faculty, and have also used it for pre/post surveys of library instruction. It’s easy to filter results by date and only download the responses you need, so you can e.g. put a feedback form and just select the current day’s batch to download.

LibSurveys: As part of LibApps, Springshare offers LibSurveys, including both simple forms and longer surveys. The interface is meant to be simple, but adding and adjusting fields (questions) is a somewhat buggy process. Once you’ve collected responses, you can view answers by question and download to CSV. Play with it if you’ve got access to it, but let me be honest; it’s not my fave! I’d rather see Springshare integrate with one of the other survey options listed here.

SurveyGizmo: This is easily my favorite. I’ve surveyed students, teachers/faculty, and librarians at school and university libraries, done usability surveys for websites, collected reference data (before I had access to Springshare), and even surveyed 385 young recent MLIS grads about their experiences in the job market last year. I find the interface and layout attractive and easy to use, and the reports and exports also easy to use. For more advanced users, you can clean data, code textual results, and even analyze data online using cross-tab reports.

Qualtrics: The institutional subscription is wonderful but expensive, so you won’t be using it unless your library has access to a university subscription. This is a sophisticated piece of survey software that allows for detailed ‘skip logic’ (adjusting the next questions based on prior responses, to keep all the questions relevant) and survey layout. I’m just getting started in using this, through a Qualtrics working group on our campus, so I’ll update you guys as I learn more!

…If you’ve used surveys as a data librarian, do share what’s worked for you, or read more tips in our next post!

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