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The Library as a Place for Distance Students

Heidi Steiner (L) and Beth Filar-Williams (R)

A recent poll showed that over 90% of academic libraries are offering courses online or at a distance.  Although distance courses offer  select courses leading to associate degrees, undergraduate degrees, and graduate degrees, most of the programs seem to be at the associate degree level.

This was an interesting session in which two librarians from differing academic environments–Heidi Steiner from Norwich University and Beth Filar-Williams from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro–described their experiences with distance education.  Although their environments are quite different, their experiences and the issues they have faced are similar.

About 1/3 of students at Norwich University are distance students.  Norwich is a small private military university with about 1,000 students. Classes are held in 11-week quarters, and the programs are designed to be completed in 18 months.  Many students are deployed overseas, and many of them have slow Internet connections.  Others are retirees who like military history; the concept of an online library is very foreign to them.

The UNC-Greensboro has 17,000 students, about 950 of whom are enrolled in completely online degree programs. Many students pursue a hybrid program, taking some courses online and some physically.  The university wants to increase the online learning programs; distance education has been growing rapidly, with a 120% increase since 2003.  Now, new faculty hires are required to teach at least 1 online class.  Many undergraduates take a class online even though they are on campus, and many are in rural areas where Internet connections are problematic.

The largest challenges in distance education are communication and technology, but others such as geography and resources are also important.

  • Communication in virtual media is less natural and more labor intensive than face to face.  It is difficult to do a reference interview–if it happens at all.  Questions take longer to answer because of the absence of facial expressions and body language.  The personal connection is lost, so there are lots of assumptions and miscommunications.
  • Geographic issues revolve around the impossibility of synchronizing schedules: you can’t be there 24/7.
  • Technology problems are worse in a virtual environment.  It is hard to diagnose tech prob at a distance; firewalls, blocked access, lack of software, compatibility issues, and popup blockers are common difficulties.   User error, such as entering the wrong password, also occurs frequently, and the virtual librarian does not have ability to help as fully as possible.
  • Resource problems are going away because of the rise of online resources, e-books, etc., but e-journals and books don’t always fill the void.  Interlibrary loan is very difficult with remote students.

Despite these issues, expectations are high, and there are ACRL standards for equal services to distance students.

At Norwich, online students use a customized web portal.  Every program has its own specific library homepage.  The platform is coded in Drupal, so it is easy to maintain and customize.  UNC has a large library IT department, making it easy to maintain system.  They run their own library web servers.

At both institutions, e-books are very heavily used by the distance students.  Norwich uses Ebook Library, and UNC has several e-book programs.  However, sometimes students still need access to a print collection.  Norwich  will send books anywhere. They pay postage to send; the student pays for return.  However, they also encourage students to use local resources and to choose research topics that they have resources for.  UNC will mail books to students, and they send a prepaid return label.

It can be difficult to convince online students that there really is a person, not a robot, behind the library services.  Both institutions make significant efforts to help students by including personalized chat, screen sharing, “Ask A Librarian” services, and video clips of the librarians running the system in their services.  Norwich has an interesting approach: a generic librarian is enrolled in every online course, making it easy for students to access the library services.  This has proven to be a big advantage for online students.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor






The Value of Academic Libraries

An Overflow Audience Turned Out to Hear a Summary of the Report on The Value of Academic Libraries

Last year, ACRL commissioned a report on the Value of Academic Libraries, and a summary of the findings was presented to an overflow audience.  The report can be downloaded or purchased as a bound volume from its website.  A podcast of the session is also available.

Mary Ellen Davis

ACRL Executive Director Mary Ellen Davis introduced the session by noting that there have been many calls for accountability in higher education.  There has been a fear that “no child left behind” would come to higher education.  Would libraries have a voice if that happened?  Higher education administrators are making difficult choices about where to spend their funds, and the relevance of the academic library is being questioned more than ever.  Libraries have gone from being a core value to being a cost center; one university even sent its library a bill for its costs!  How can we demonstrate relevance and value to the community?  In such an environment, ACRL commissioned a study to look at how to align libraries with institutional outcomes, empower them to carry out their work locally, create shared knowledge, and contribute to higher education assessment.  Libraries have tended to use input and output as measures of value; this won’t be sufficient going forward.  How are we making a difference?  We have to align ourselves with the overall mission of the institute.  What are we trying to achieve?  Did it make a difference?  How are we contributing to the goals and revenue of the institution?

The ACRL Board therefore commissioned a study and selected Megan Oakleaf of Syracuse University to conduct it.  The Board hopes that the resulting report will help librarians educate researchers and administrators on their value.

Megan Oakleaf presented a summary of the report and some of its recommendations.  Its focus is on the value of the library to the parent institution as seen by the stakeholders:  students (both undergraduate and graduate), faculty, staff and administration, parents, and the government.  There are 500 references in the report, including not only those on academic libraries but also school, public, and special libraries (they are ahead of academic libraries and have taken different approaches).  Satisfaction with services and external perceptions of quality were not covered in the study.

We have undervalued our libraries, and many of them need a “help packet” to confront their shrinking budgets and the feeling of being marginalized.  In the past, value has tended to be measured by use statistics, but they are not enough of an indicator.  We must see the big picture.  People are really interested in the outcome of their research and the benefit of their library use.

Today’s paradigm is shifting from collections to service.  What purpose do the collections serve?  What is the benefit, the outcome?  What do libraries enable people to do?  What do they use the information for?  (This is a big “who cares” question).  As a result, the  expectations of funding agencies has shifted, and social, economic outcomes have become more important.  What are we enabling people to do?  What do individual users do?  And what impact does that have?  If you know what people are doing, you can start to determine the impact.

Here are a few of the recommendations of the report:

  • Define the outcomes.  What are the needs and goals of your institutions?  Intersect needs and goals.
  • Use existing data.  Don’t do a new survey.  See if the data that you need exists; people are generally willing to share it.
  • Develop systems to collect data on individual library user behavior while maintaining privacy.  We cannot move forward as rapidly as we would like to unless we know what people are doing.
  • Generate data that plays well with assessment management systems.  Most campus departments are earlier adopters at this than we are.  Organize your data by outcomes so you can easily run a report.


Report Recommendations

The library contributes to a wide range of campus activities, including student enrollment, retention, and success; faculty research productivity, grant proposals and funding; as well as the the institution’s overall reputation and prestige.  It is an important campus function.


Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, ACRL President

ACRL President Lisa Hinchliffe wrapped up the session by issuing challenges to library administrators and professional organizations for actions they could do based on the report.



Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

E-Science–How Can We Teach It?

Michael Fosmire

Michael Fosmire, Purdue University Libraries, followed David Osterbur and said that we must build tools but also the curricula that go with them; in other words, teach students to “fish”.  He quoted the call to action in NSF’s Cyberinfrastructure Vision of the 21st Century Discovery:


A Call to Action

E-science is  not fundamentally new, but it empowers scientists to do things faster and better.  Its limiting factor is how not to lose data or make it unavailable to those people who need it.  It is a social and participatory environment.  Vast amounts of data are being generated, but without curation, organization, and preservation, it is easily lost.

Fosmire participated in a needs assessment consisting of structured interviews of faculty which resulted in 12 core competencies required of e-scientists:

  • Databases and data formats, especially an understanding of relational database principles,
  • Discovery and application of data in repositories, and the ability to import and convert it to a suitable format for further processing,
  • Data management and organization: understanding the life cycle of data and creation of standard operating procedures for processing it,
  • Data conversion and interoperability: ability to migrate data from one format to another, while understanding the risks of doing so,
  • Understanding metadata and the structure and purpose of ontologies to facilitate better sharing,
  • Quality assurance: resolving corruption of data sets,
  • Data curation and re-use: recognizing that data may have purposes other than the original one for which it was intended and understanding that data curation is a complex and often costly process,
  • Cultures of practice:  recognition of the practices, values, and norms of one’s chosen field as well as relevant data standards,
  • Data preservation:  recognition of the benefits and costs,
  • Data analysis:  becomes familiar with the basic analysis tools of the discipline,
  • Data visualization:  understanding the advantages of different types of visualizations, and
  • Ethics:  develops an understanding of intellectual property, privacy, and confidentiality issues and appropriately acknowledges external sources.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor


ACRL 2011: E-Science–The Next Step in Information Literacy

David Osterbur

David Osterbur, Head, Public and Access Services at the Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, led off a well attended session on e-science by providing a definition of it.  He said that many people think that e-science is big data with everything archived, but it is better to think of it as networked data-driven science.  In working with e-science, the skills of a librarian are helpful, especially  in knowing how to search and knowing about metadata and how to apply it.

One of the big problems in e-science is proprietary software.  When it is brought in to an organization, one must learn how to use it and must find ways to make data interperable.  Although it takes time and effort to do this as well as some subject expertise, it is not necessary to have a Ph.D. to help researchers find what they need.  The best way to help them is to teach them how to use the resources in the library.  Many scientists don’t know what they have available to them.  A library catalog is an asset to working with e-science because it allows researchers to access the information they need.

Osterbur stressed that science needs to be more open.  A lot of data is available that could be put to good use, but it is not accessible because it is locked up.  Publishers are hurting science by hiding content behind walls, so that data mining is not possible.  Data mining cannot be done using only an abstract.  We must make data open and accessible so that the amount of knowledge that will be generated will increase.  Right now, that is being inhibited.  More open data will help libraries with their collection development activities because they can see what subject areas are hot.

Vivo is an example of a knowledge management  system where faculty members can list their expertise and find collaborators.  Osterbur thought that it might also function as a peer review system which would let universities eliminate commercial publishers by publishing research themselves.  They could gain the same reputation as publishers and make their content all open.  In Osterbur’s opinion, there is no room for profit in scholarly publishing any more.  Such a system might work well for humanities as well as the sciences.  It is time to change things, and we need to do this!

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

ACRL 2011: Scenes From the Exhibit Hall

I was at the ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries) 2011 conference, and here are some scenes from the exhibit hall.  The conference was well attended; one exhibitor told me that they had not had such a heavily trafficked booth for the last couple of years.  What an encouraging sign that is!

The Gale Cengage Learning Booth Featured QR Codes on its T-Shirts

There's an Attention-Getting Costume!

Poster Sessions Drew Large Crowds

Another Poster

And Another...Poster Sessions Provide Excellent Opportunities for Interaction With the Authors

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor