Academics discuss the changing roles of campus libraries and librarians in the online education era.


[Editor’s note: Edits have been made to reflect changes in lead author citation, as well as professional title.]

With the explosion of distance education, librarianship is changing from managing books to connecting people and quality resources while at the same time delivering resources effectively and providing the best customer service possible.

That’s the consensus, say Amanda Corbett, a graduate student at East Carolina University (ECU) and a professional librarian, and Abbie Brown, professor at ECU, of current research on the changing role of libraries and librarians, as well as best practices from major colleges and universities across the country.

In answer to the question, “Do libraries and librarians play a part in advancing distance education?” Corbett and Brown say in their new report that “the trend is to shift the emphasis from what librarians do to how they do it to meet the continuing needs of distance education users. The academic librarian provides added value to the teaching and learning process; as long as there is a need for learning resources, there will be a need for a guide to navigate those resources.”

Also, because distance students often live in locations that don’t have a local library, online library services (i.e. locating resources for coursework) are critical.

And while Corbett and Brown note in their new report that there are many benefits to including library services within a distance education program or course, there are also many challenges for librarians today in keeping pace with new demands in student learning.

(Next page: Skills, competencies and benefits provided by libraries)

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)

Corbett and Brown’s research highlights many challenges for librarians and libraries in providing services for distant students, including:

  • Accessing and searching for the right materials
  • Locating and using various media formats
  • Learning the distinctive technologies used within the online educational platform, such as Blackboard or Moodle
  • Keeping up-to-date with those technologies
  • Providing services and resources equal to those available on-campus
  • Changing the mindset of a librarian from using print resources to using online resources
  • Developing support and communication with the institution to ensure that adequate funding is put into place to develop and implement services and technologies
  • Managing issues related to reserve and copyright specific to distance education

“With older adults venturing into online education, another problem is that many of these learners are unfamiliar with using online resources, which requires additional instruction on how to use the various technologies, instead of just how to search for and use the library resources,” says the report. “Libraries and librarians need to develop instruction and tutorials to meet this unique need so that the learner can access the information when convenient.”

The authors said that librarians also need to realize that faculty, staff, and other people will be using these resources and services as much as students will, if not more; alternately, another challenge is how to change the perception of the faculty toward using library materials, resources, and services online.

The future

Based on the numerous, current research reports on the changing role of the library, Corbett and Brown believe that libraries can better serve distance education students by:

  • Increasing the number of full-text options found on the various databases subscribed to by the library
  • Focusing on ways to improve access, which can include regularly redesigning the library website for ease-of-use
  • Providing more ways for students to communicate with each other, and with library staff, online
  • Adapting typical library services such as reference, inter-library loan, document services, access, and basic library instruction for the technological world
  • Creating tutorials for instructional purposes, such as: how to search the catalog, how to find articles in the library’s databases, and how to retrieve electronic reserves
  • Focusing on digital video production and distribution

For more information (including information on the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) standards and definitions, resources for librarians, and much more), read the full report, “The roles that librarians and libraries play in distance education settings,” here.

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