This morning, I received an e-mail from a librarian who is applying for a position as a distance learning librarian. She asked me what a distance learning librarian does. I would guess that every single person with the title (and some without it who work with online learners) have somewhat different job responsibilities. I’m the Webmaster for the library, liaison to 9 distance learning Masters degree programs, am supposed to develop online information literacy instructional materials, teach in-person information literacy classes to undergrads, provide reference assistance online and off, troubleshoot database access problems, keep up with technology and teach my colleagues about it, use social technologies to provide outreach to patrons, and I’m the liaison to Academic Computing (I’m sure there are other things in my job description that I’m not remembering right now). Other people may work solely with distance faculty and students, but we’ve got a very small staff here and everyone has to wear lots of different hats.

The most important part of my job is providing outreach to the distance learners and faculty through research assistance and instruction. This can be really challenging. Our distance learners are all over the world and some have real issues accessing the library resources or doing research. A good number of our distance learners are deployed overseas and often have security software/hardware that block the databases and even some free Websites (try doing online research on terrorism while stationed in Iraq!). Others have never done research online in their lives. While someone might make the assumption that anyone who decides to get a degree online must be relatively tech savvy, they would be wrong. A large number of our students have serious difficulties doing online research and our faculty aren’t usually any more tech-savvy than the students. People often forget that the distance faculty also require reference and instruction services, and it can be even more difficult to build a rapport with them. It’s taken a lot of work to build a real rapport with the various graduate programs. Being a liaison means going to faculty/staff meetings, serving on committees, staying in contact as much as possible with the administrators of the programs and just trying to be generally useful to them. Probably my biggest challenge is getting to be seen as a member of the team and getting the programs to see that information literacy instruction should be an essential part of the curriculum.

I thought I would chronicle my day in an effort to show how many different hats a distance learning librarian often has to wear. In my job, every day is so different; there are few routines. One day I may be doing a lot of in-person reference and face-to-face meetings. Another day I might be hunched over my desk for 8 hours. Today was a fairly typical day in the sense that I rarely have the opportunity to continue any one task for more than 30 minutes at a time:

8:00 a.m. – arrive at work. Check my e-mail and answer some questions from confused distance learners. One student is looking for some of the tutorials I created (they’re in the Library Access portal). Another is wondering how to get books from the library sent to her (it’s explained in the Library Access portal). Another is unable to access the library resources from his classroom. I’ve got a long list in my head of reasons why he might not be able to access the databases, but this student can’t even get into the library portal in WebCT. I log into WebCT and take a look at his seminar. I find that I also can’t get into the library resources from there, so I contact the Instructional Developer for his program.

8:30 a.m. – we just got a whole bunch of new ProQuest databases (yay!). Of course that means that I have to add them to the library Website and all of the databases by subject pages in our WebCT portal. I add them to the on-campus Websites first and remind myself to work on the portal later in the week since I know we have some more changes in the pipeline (and it’s a pain to update stuff in WebCT).

8:55 a.m. – hear from the instructional developer. The problem is fixed. I check WebCT and find that I can now get into the Library Access portal from that classroom. I contact the student to let him know.

9:05 a.m. – go to WordPress.org and download what I need to start installing WordPress. I’m redesigning our Website and we’re going to have a news page with information about new resources, events at the library and database trials. I decided to set up a blog on our library server, but then syndicate the content from it onto a page that looks like any other page on our Website. IT isn’t keen on the idea of blogs, so by syndicating the content, it won’t even look like a blog, but will allow people other than me to add content to it.

9:20 a.m. – I’m about to start the process of installing WordPress when a student calls in a bit of a tizzy because he’s having trouble using the library resources. Once I calm him down, I find out that he is in eBrary and wants to download books so that he can read them offline because his Internet connection has been spotty. I explain to him that it just isn’t possible and he says that at his old library he could download eBooks. I apologize for eBrary’s DRM (believe me, I’m no fan of it all either). I then ask him what his research topic is. It’s a History topic, so I try to steer him towards JSTOR, Historical Abstracts and Academic Search Premiere. I let him know that he can print out or save anything from these databases to his hard drive. I also point him to the tutorial on doing research in these three databases. The History students in particular get really stuck on the idea of only using books for their research, but in an online course, you have to be willing to explore other avenues.

9:45 a.m. – Take a quick walk around the library. I start to feel really tired if I sit for too long. Say hi to some of my colleagues. Ask the Head of Tech Services if we’ve gotten access to some of the new databases in the pipeline. “Not yet.”

10:00 a.m. – come back to find an e-mail from a course developer (faculty member whose job is to actually design courses — lectures, readings, assignments, etc.) looking for full-text online articles for the course he is developing. Do some research in ABI/INFORM and Business Source Premiere and end up with quite a few references to send him. I send him a bunch of citations and also suggest that he search the databases as well since he would know better what readings would meet his needs. I suggest some databases to search and some search terms to use. I don’t know this faculty member well, so I don’t know how comfortable he is with online research. Some of our people are research whizzes, and others have barely ever used a database in their life. So I try to give them a lot of helpful hints if I don’t know how comfortable they are with online research.

10:45 a.m. – the Head of Academic Computing calls to talk about how to better highlight essential library information inWebCT classrooms so that students don’t get frustrated and give up on using the library. We throw around some ideas and also discuss my idea to do an “embedded librarian” pilot project in the Spring with the Military History graduate program. She likes the idea but thinks I could easily get overwhelmed by the number of distance learning classes. I realize that I definitely can’t embed myself into every classroom, but it would really benefit students in their first seminar (especially in those programs that are research-intensive) to have a librarian enrolled in the course and an Ask a Librarian discussion board in the classroom.

11:10 a.m. – answer a few work-related e-mails. We’re moving from GAIM to Meebo as our IM Reference client (to take advantage of the MeeboMe widget), so I write up some basic instructions on how to log into our Meebo account and how to set-up an away message. I also address some issues with our ILL librarian who has been getting a large number of requests all of a sudden from military history students. I realize that there is a School of Graduate Studies meeting this afternoon (d’oh!) and I already have meetings scheduled at 1pm and 2pm. I’d really like to go and talk about my Embedded Librarian idea there, but I doubt I’ll be able to get out of my meetings in time.

11:50 p.m. – eat lunch at my desk while reading Bloglines. IM my husband to see how he’s doing.

12:15 p.m. – do a little work creating persistent links to articles for a graduate course. This is truly my least favorite part of my job and one that takes up way too much time. Before I started, people were putting all sorts of links to articles in their classrooms without understanding which links were persistent/durable or that they needed a proxy prefix to go through the proxy server. Once I was hired, it was decided that part of my job would be providing links to required readings in our databases for all of the distance learning courses. This wasn’t so bad last year when there were far fewer programs. Now, there are 9 programs (soon-to-be 10) with six seminars going live each start date. I got a spreadsheet of course readings earlier in the week that was horribly filled out. The article titles were not in full, the volume and issue numbers were not put in, and there were tons of misspellings. If I was so careless when entering these links into the spreadsheet, students would not be able to get to their readings. It just bugs me sometimes. We set a deadline of Friday the 15th for people to send me spreadsheets of their required course readings and so far I’ve barely gotten any. This is the first time that I’m really putting my foot down and am absolutely not going to accept anything late. They can learn to do it themselves if they can’t send it to me on time. [/rant]

1:00 p.m. – meet with our library’s archivist and her assistant in special collections. I’m trying to meet with everyone around the library to talk about their area of the Web site and how we can improve it. Right now, special collections has a sad little page without much information that would be useful to people, and I know that our archivist is as eager to improve the page as I am. A few days ago, I asked the two of them to think about the redesign in light of the following questions:

  1. Why would someone be visiting your page(s)?
  2. What are the most important things a person needs to know if they want to visit/do research in special collections?
  3. What do people who visit special collections often ask about that we could provide on the Website (this could be anything from your hours, to how to do historical research there, to a specific history question)?

They had some really good ideas for improving the site and promised to send me some content in the near future. It’s great when people are enthusiastic about this… I’m going to have to make all of the decisions about some of the areas of the Website since I can’t get feedback from anyone in those ares. It’s cool that I’m given so much freedom in this Web design project, but I’d feel much better knowing that the new Website reflects the vision of everyone at the library.

2:00 p.m. – head downstairs for a conference call training for Serial Solutions AMS. We are in the process of switching over to it, and since my agitating was a big part of the reason we’re switching, I figured I should learn as much as I can to make other people’s lives easier. Our Systems Librarian is leaving for vacation soon, so we have 2 1/2 days to get this all working and configured. No pressure!

3:30 p.m. – ok… where was I? Right, installing WordPress. Get it done. Very happy to be able to check something off my list.

4:05 p.m. – get a call from a colleague who is on the reference desk. A distance student on IM is having trouble accessing library resources. I run downstairs and take over the chat. It’s an easy question to answer, but there really are only two people here at the library who remember the answers to these sorts of questions (which worries me). I’ve put a lot of answers to commonly asked questions on our wiki, but no one ever bothers to look at that. I remind my colleague that the information is on the wiki.

4:15 p.m. – few more e-mails. One from a student, several from faculty and staff. I answer the ones I can do quickly. More spreadsheets with course readings sent in :(

4:40 p.m. – before I head home, I update my “To do” list with other things I absolutely have to get done before the holiday break. Realize that the list is longer than the time I have left. Sigh.

4:45 p.m. – head home (20 minute drive) to black bean soup, pumpkin gingerbread and the best husband ever. No matter how frustrating some days might be, I always try to leave that stuff at the office. My home time with Adam is precious to me, even if we’re just laying in bed next to each other with laptops.