Creating Libraries for Online Students Is Harder Than You Think

Nov 15, 2019

Students who take online college courses may not realize it, but they are the beneficiaries of a special bill of rights. Its goal? To ensure students can access books and other academic resources even if they’re nowhere near a campus.

The Association of College & Research Libraries maintains in its “access entitlement principle,” which functions as a sort of library bill of rights, that all students of an institution of higher education “are entitled to the library services and resources of that institution,” including access to a librarian, regardless of location.

But getting books to people spread across the world—and answering their research questions—is no simple task. Serving distance learners requires creativity and cooperation, librarians say, plus an appetite for bargaining with publishers.

“Libraries are really, really good at collaborating,” says Karen Munro, president of the Association of College & Research Libraries. “I don’t think modern universities or academic libraries could do half of what they do if they didn’t have those strong relationships with each other.”

Here’s how college librarians extend their resources and expertise to students who may never set foot in the stacks.

Careful Course Design

It starts with the digital course design process. At Southern New Hampshire University, which has more than 90,000 online students, “eLearning Librarians” are involved in curriculum development from the outset, says Trisha Prevett, one such e-librarian for the school.

She and her colleagues work with instructional designers and faculty to incorporate library resources—newspaper stories, journal articles, films, e-books—into course materials lists and bundle them into research guides built directly into learning management systems. When courses begin, the e-librarians are available to help students access the materials.

This process is critical to ensuring students actually can and do use library resources, which is among the criteria checked by accreditors for online programs.

“Having access to really good online resources isn’t effective when faculty don’t make a really good effort to show students how to use them, encourage their access and integrate them into the curriculum,” says Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

For that reason, Matthews is not a fan of distance learning programs that outsource course design and accompanying library resources to online program managers, or OPMs.

“I support using a library service, but it has to be integrated well into the curriculum,” she says. “If you have this ProQuest database parked there on your online management system, that’s great, but if the students don’t know how to access it or incorporate it into their scholarship, it’s useless.”

She adds, “If you don’t have a librarian or trained faculty or people with technical capability and ability and willingness to work with students, it goes nowhere.”

Shared Services

Librarians at different institutions have long collaborated to improve their work, and that ethos of shared service remains important when it comes to helping online students.

Some universities have partnerships that allow a student enrolled online at one institution to visit the physical library at another institution closer to where that student lives. And interlibrary loan systems that pass physical books among libraries for patrons who visit in person can help distance learners access materials, too. If an online student requests a text that her institution doesn’t have, her librarian may use interlibrary loan to borrow a copy, scan relevant sections and turn them into a PDF to send to the student over email (while staying within the bounds of copyright arrangements, of course).

While online courses can certainly reach more students than their lecture hall counterparts, colleges don’t always scale up staff to compensate. That can make it difficult for librarians to provide timely assistance to patrons.

At Southern New Hampshire University, the three e-learning librarians use a cooperative reference service to make sure there’s always a librarian available to communicate with online students who live across multiple time zones.

“Chat gets hit pretty hard. We have thousands of interactions in a given month,” Prevett says. “And from on-campus students too, who don’t want to walk from the third floor to the second floor.”

Digital Deals

Librarians face a few challenges in making resources readily available in digital formats for online students. Among the biggest, librarians say, are the prices publishers charge and the limitations they impose on licenses for e-books.

E-books are often more expensive for libraries to purchase than physical books, says Louise LeClaire, social media coordinator at Cheshire Public Library, who recently published a detailed blog post explaining e-book agreements. Publishers sometimes require libraries to purchase new licenses for an e-book every few years or after that book has been checked out a few dozen times.

Restrictions can go even further. Earlier this year, librarians at academic and public libraries were up in arms at the news that Macmillan Publishers planned to impose an “embargo” on its new e-books. The policy permits a library system to purchase only a single digital copy of a title for the first eight weeks it’s available—limiting the number of patrons who can check it out to one at a time. The American Library Association is protesting the move, which may disproportionately hurt people who rely on e-books for accessibility reasons and, of course, online students.

“I think it’s a very, very bad precedent for readers,” says Munro, the Association of College & Research Libraries president. “I don’t want to see longstanding rights of access being peeled away and moved back.”

Librarians at Southern New Hampshire prioritize acquiring e-books that have unlimited licenses to serve as many students simultaneously as possible, Prevett says: “Librarians need to keep pushing. We really need this unlimited content. It’s at the forefront of the conversations we’re having with our vendors.”

Some college librarians have taken digitization efforts into their own hands, like when the University of Michigan and Google forged a partnership to scan the university’s print collection through the Google Books project.

The work led to a years-long epic legal battle, but despite setbacks it resulted in the HathiTrust Digital Library. Dozens of colleges are members of the collective digitized library, which provides both on-campus and online students with access to millions of digital volumes.

Return Stickers

For all the digital innovation happening at college libraries to serve distance learners, physical books are still part of the equation. Sometimes, the best way to get an academic resource to a student is to use a good old fashioned stamp.

“We do still have services that mail books from the library,” Munro says. “If they are remote from campus, they can do that in the catalogue. It’s really seamless.”

Such programs, sometimes called “telebook” delivery, even come with return stickers and postage to make sure books get back home safely to their shelves.


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