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February 2003, Vol. 2, Issue 2

by George Lorenzo

In online higher education, as in traditional higher education, the library is the nexus between teaching and learning, providing a host of vital services to its patrons.

The prototypical 21st century higher education library is a complex business. Technology is driving enormous change in the way students learn and faculty teach. Libraries must keep up with the inflow of new technologically savvy students who insist on doing all their research online over a quick Internet connection with easy-to-navigate interfaces. Todayís institutional libraries must also provide increasingly demanding services to a growing body of adult learners who are typically not so computer literate and Web-savvy. Plus, the doors of the library donít swing open as much as they used to, with more and more students, faculty and staff (both off-campus and on-campus) opting out of face-to-face library visits and opting into the library via desktops from the comfort of their dorm rooms, homes and offices.

All of this, and much more, is having a profound impact on campus libraries today.

ALAís Fastest Growing Section

The Distance Learning Section (DLS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) - a division of the American Library Association (ALA) - is one of the fastest growing sections in the ALA, with 1,460 members, says Maryhelen Jones, DLS chair and associate library director at Florida State University. "We have individuals coming from instructional backgrounds, reference backgrounds, and library administrations, all the way up to deans and directors of libraries. We are interested in how to best serve students, faculty and administrators who are part of any distance learning or distributed learning environment."

Issues and Challenges

A wide range of new issues and challenges confront the field of distance learning librarianship, including, and not limited to, developing results-oriented online information literacy programs for faculty and students, building large digital resources that require a keen understanding of complex licensing and copyright agreements with publishers, constructing the appropriate Web portal architecture for patrons to easily navigate around, recognizing the workings of information technology and campus computing departments, and meeting challenges that are typically the result of inadequate resource allocations that stress library management on both the human and technical sides.

"Libraries are incorporating technology as fast as they can," says Nancy Burich, chair of the DLS Strategic Planning Committee and coordinator for Distance Learning Information Services at the University of Kansas. "One of the problems is that we are not getting rid of any of the things we used to do, so we are doing more and more with less and less, which is always a challenge."

"Librarians really do need to have a knowledge of the broader online environment," adds Jones. "Most libraries are now used to thinking that almost every student at some point or another becomes a distance learning student just by stepping out of the building, because there are so many services, databases, and electronic forms that are all part of the Web presence of libraries."

Information Literacy

One of the major issues in the distance education realm is that faculty and students need to be better informed about the growing Web presence of libraries and how that presence can be utilized effectively inside their online classes. Basically, the onus falls on library staff to instruct its patrons on how to access and ferret through massive amounts of information now available online.

Part of the challenge relates to the growing use of free information available via search engines like Google, coupled with libraries adding more and more proprietary, full-text electronic information to the campus archives from publishers and information aggregators. The end result is an ocean of information that can confuse students rather than help them as they conduct research.

"People assume that information on the Internet is legitimate, when a lot of it isnít," says Tom Abbott, dean of libraries and instructional support at the University of Maine at Augusta. "They (library patrons) need to be information literate, which means they need to know how to search and find alternatives, and evaluate and pick the ones they need. You canít do [deep scholarly research] through Google, because it does not have proprietary databases that are designed and licensed for academic libraries."

Teaching Information Literacy Online

One of the obvious solutions to providing information literacy skills to online students and faculty who are not physically present is to develop online tutorials that address this topic.

For libraries that may want assistance with creating online information literacy tutorials geared toward students, thereís the Texas Information Literacy Tutorial (TILT), an interactive library tutorial sponsored by the University of Texas System Digital Library. According to the TILT Web site, "individuals and institutions may download a copy of the TILT text, graphics and scripts to use on their own campuses and customize in whole or in part. TILT is distributed to all interested parties at no charge under an Open Publication License (OPL)."

An interesting example of an online tutorial about information literacy as it concerns faculty is the Information Competence for the Discipline of Black Studies Tutorial created for the California State University Long Beach Department of Black Studies. According to its Web site, the tutorial focuses on updating and enhancing the information literacy skills of faculty and "will reinforce the importance of information literacy and illustrate how to integrate its main tenets into the curriculum."

Resource Allocation and Dollars

Information literacy is just the tip of the iceberg when discussing the issues and challenges related to providing sufficient online library services to off-campus patrons. In a time when colleges and universities and accrediting agencies of distance education programs mandate that library services provided to off-campus patrons be equal to the library services provided to on-campus patrons, many higher education libraries are still not getting the budgets and resource allocations they truly need.

"A lot of online services we provide are very costly, and the vendors are interested in making a profit, and every year they ask for more money for the databases," says Jones. "It is a very tough time to balance all the resources and choices we have to make with money. The other thing is that distance learning departments and organizations are often revenue centers and not necessarily part of the overall university allocation. They have to be self-supporting, and they [higher education administrators] donít necessarily say that a portion of the revenue returned to them [distance education departments] be earmarked for the library."

Implementing Cost Savings

Anne Prestamo, head of Digital Library Services at Oklahoma State University (OSU) adds that "just about any state you can name is in budgetary crisis." At OSU, for instance, "weíve had not only flat budgets, but in the last and current fiscal year we [the university library] have had to give money back."

"We are trying to cope with a lot of different issues right now and certainly one of them is the cut back of funds," adds Burich.

To help realize some cost savings, OSUís library has opted for online-only access to specific journals where it is feasible, and thus eliminated a number of print subscriptions. "If we no longer get a journal in print, it can cut down on internal costs such as the cost of shelving and re-shelving. Plus, we are obviously not going to be binding those journals. Our staff and acquisitions [people] do not have to check in all those print issues as they arrive in the mail. So, there are some administrative and processing cost savings. It was a big leap that none of us were necessarily ready to take, but we had to because of budget situations."

Serving the Remote User
The "big leap" that Prestamo refers to is all about providing increasing levels of online access to information and services via the campus library to remote patrons. And today, "remote can mean the faculty member next store as much as the distance learning student in Germany," she adds.

Says Jones: "Yes, there is much more of an emphasis among librarians at all levels, no matter where we are in our careers, that we need to have an understanding of the electronic environment that we are putting our patrons into. But, common sense and patron courtesy are still in place. The users (meaning human beings) are what should be the center of our world."

ACRLís Distance Learning Section

Texas Information Literacy Tutorial

Information Competence for the Discipline of Black Studies Tutorial

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