MLA 2009: How Millennials Search

The Case of the Millennials’ Mysterious Searching Habits
Lucy Holman, Director, University of Baltimore Langsdale Library

This was a really interesting session, and I felt Lucy did a great job of explaining how these students are searching. There are a lot of ways to try to address this issue, but none of them will be easy (and many of them are no doubt very unpopular).

UPDATE 5/20: Lucy presented a poster on this at ACRL this year, check it out for even more details.

How the project came to be: UB was going to start enrolling freshmen/sophomores, lots of university workshops on millennials in general. Lucy was also taking classes in IA and mental models. Started wondering what the mental models re: search are for these students.

Who are millennials?

  • experiential learners — learn through discovery, not going to read documentation
  • hypertext learners – jump around, info from here & there (boys esp do not read/search linearly)
  • “satisficers” — (Paradox of Choice) – stop when they find what’s “good enough” – not looking for the perfect 5 articles, etc.
  • visual literacy – concerned with look & feel of material, not so much content
  • prefer simple interface (databases lose here)
  • value immediacy
  • search more than they browse
  • think they’re pretty skilled – satisfied with their skills & with what they find – not looking to grow skillset

Mental models

  • Don Norman: internal cognitive representations – what you see in your head when you think about a system or process.
  • malleable – can train people to use them – transfer from one app to another (Microsoft Office similarity between apps; e-commerce designers took cues from physical world)


  • qualitative study (no hypothesis) – Sept/Oct 2008 (piloted in summer)
  • observe students in their natural habitat, see how they search, compare mental models to effectiveness in search
  • found many more issues than expected
  • modified Contextual Inquiry method – researcher observes user in natural habitat with real day-to-day tasks – forms a partnership; researcher has no questions or things to address. researcher as apprentice
  • questions designed to find out why students were doing what they were doing
  • modified: didn’t go to their apt/computer lab/library – used UB’s usability lab; were doing their own work though
  • used Morae to capture audio, video, screen caps


  • observed for an hour, had a few ?s at the end to get at mental models21 first year students at UB; all 17-19
  • all had at least one computer at home (> half had two); 95% online at least an hour a day; 91% had social networking profiles
  • 1st & 2nd year program uses learning community profiles – humanities, social science & skills course (one semester it is info lit), all interwoven around a single theme
  • most were working on a fairly complex assignment for an econ class (on politics)


  • 210 discrete searches — 130 in search engines (94 in Google); 80 in databases
  • a few had been introduced to db’s but not much library instruction yet (wanted them “untainted”)
  • within dbs most went to Academic Search Premier – others were used by accident
  • one student did all of his searching through his high school library (me: failure to make them realize the skills translate into other environments? failure of student to realize what UB has to offer?)
  • mostly simple searches (economic downturn) and topic + focus (democrat and environment) – w or w/o boolean “and.”
  • some phrase searches (articles on democratic views on global warming);
  • 14% did more complex boolean, but more than half were incorrectly done
  • 3 students used subject headings (search or click)
  • tons of misspellings – in Google immediately click “did you mean;” realize that they can’t spell but don’t catch it in the databases o think they’ve done something wrong
  • they are doing things super fast and don’t notice their own errors – not really reading, scanning
  • two students read a lot, most said they would go back and read the things they chose later
  • on websites, they go straight to the search box instead of using built-in navigation tools
  • lots of search within page/document

Their difficulties

  • use the wrong search boxes on library website (journal subscription search rather than get into a database)
  • use “find all” with tons of keywords/bad boolean and don’t realize why they’re not getting any results
  • takes forever to re-find something because can’t remember what they did
  • think that the abstract is the whole article
  • how does a search engine know what you need? “it looks for what you type in” “Google has its own archive of previous/generic searches, assuming that they give me the top hits” “Google knows through tags, I don’t know what a tag is”
  • none of them had a complete picture – “most were thinking of concepts, not the words as a series of letters” don’t see a difference between searching on environment vs pollution

How they evaluate sites

  • Black & white on Wikipedia – cannot use it ever, use it all the time. seem to realize that “anyone can put something on there” “it may be right but people can change it” “search the bottom for external links & sources and use that as my own source”
  • evaluating sites: “I use the top five” “chose based on the appearance of the website” “it has good information but presentation is not good” “news is highlighted, it’s reliable” “.edu has to be very reliable (site had nothing to do with topic).” On Chevron website “really good overview” of environmental topics (said he didn’t know who Chevron was); planned to base everything on their site.
  • “I would prefer books and newspapers.” “I prefer to use a book.” “I go to the library and ask for help.” “the library site has links and links and links and passwords, I forget them right away. should just link straight to it”

How they conceptualize search tools

  • “Google is kind of a library, just a thinned out library. in the library you’d have difficulty finding what you need because of the categories and how they set it up” “instead of having it hidden, you know cards call numbers, they just have a keyword they put on the document” “just show you everything that has to do with (your topic)”
  • if they said “library” or “catalog” it was just as a container; some felt organizational structure was an impediment
  • very hard for them to diagram relationships between their search concepts


  • Implications for how we teach? teachers should tell them the project is not about the topic, it’s about how to find information on the topic.
  • teachers need to explain what kind of internet resources are out-of-bounds, many of them think that they can’t use databases (me: we see this all the time even at the college level. students told they can’t use “anything electronic” and that seems to include electronic versions of our scholarly resources, which seriously limits them in some cases since most of what we have at this point is digital)
  • libraries are not organized for the real world – LCSH is great if you are a librarian but bewildering otherwise
  • middle school librarian says her students do the same things as the college students studied. teachers think the students are sophisticated on computers, so the students can just figure it out and don’t give enough guidance. (me: wow this issue is even more complicated to address than it seemed to be a minute ago)