Do libraries matter in distance education?

Skills and competencies

According to Corbett and Brown’s research, the librarian today “does not have the luxury of focusing on a single, specific task, and must instead focus on the user—especially within the context of distance education.”

Overall, the report says that today’s librarians must be able to:

  • Conduct a reference interview by asking questions to determine what is needed for the course or program before guiding students to information that would be of help
  • Help with searching and locating resources for assignments
  • Teach students and faculty how to use these resources
  • Become a technological assistant, providing things like tutorials on the library’s webpage to hands-on training of various programs
  • Know how to use software programs needed, as well as install those programs on public computers
  • Effectively engage in social media to communicate with students, faculty, and peers

“Librarians must also evolve from print media to focused media and become information specialists with the ability to effectively teach information literacy,” emphasize the authors.


Corbett and Brown emphasize that many institutions use an “embedded librarian” in their distance programs as part of the strategy to provide equivalent library access, resources, and services for distant learners as on-campus learners. Specifically, embedded librarians in distance education courses can provide students with instruction, reference and research guidance, document delivery and reserve/requested materials, and assistance with the documentation of papers.

And though the roles of an embedded librarian vary by institution and course, the roles often range from limited, to teaching assistance, to developing lesson plans and assignments as a co-instructor.

Besides providing distance learners with access to valuable resources, embedded librarians help “instructors spend less time answering questions,” explained the authors, “and [these instructors] report a higher quality of work and success from the learners.”

Benefits also include those for the institution. For example, by including a wide array of distance education services (like an embedded librarian), an institution “shows its resourcefulness and innovativeness,” notes the report. It also “shows that it understands its responsibility to distance students and that they are being proactive in meeting their unique needs.”

(Next page: Challenges for librarians in distance education; looking ahead)