I’ve been wanting to comment on this thought-provoking post by Carleen at Woodsy + Wired (a pretty new blog) for a few weeks now and just haven’t had the time. But almost every day, her post has been on my mind.

In Effects of distance learning on public libraries, Carleen writes about her library’s struggles to provide services to students at a satellite campus in her town that has no library:

Although we’re happy to assist them, I always try to ask whether they have considered using their schools databases since they tend to be bigger, better and more geared towards their needs. They usually look at me with a blank stare.

We’ve tried to address this issue in various collection development meetings but I think it’s an area we’re a little afraid to tread on. In the past, we have purchased reference books specifically with university students needs in mind, but are reluctant to take it much further.

I agree that there are limits to what the public library should be providing to these students. The library shouldn’t be purchasing databases or pricey journal subscriptions for students who should have access to this through their academic library. On the other hand, these students should be treated like any other member of the community. If you had an illiteracy problem in the community, you’d probably start a literacy program. If you had a small Spanish-speaking population, you might do some collection development in that area. You provide for the needs of your patrons.

I think about the role public libraries play in distance education quite frequently, because I often do refer our distance learners to their local library. We provide a lot of services to our distance learners. I have created a special portal to library services that lives in WebCT and is linked in every online classroom. I have created many, many tutorials (flash movies, html, etc.) to teach them how to use our resources. I am embedded into some of the more research intensive classes. We have more than 10 times the number of databases that we had 5 years ago. We will mail our books to our students and will frequently purchase books for the collection at the time a student needs it (within reason). We will get them any journal article they want via ILL. The one thing that is lacking is that we do not do traditional ILL with books. With the short loan times and the fact that we have students all over the world, there simply isn’t enough time to receive the book, mail it to the student, allow them to consult it, get it back from them and then mail it back to the lending institution. And while we will purchase books for the collection that students request, there are times when a book is too expensive, out of print and not readily available or just blatantly inappropriate for the collection. At those times, I usually suggest to the student that they utilize the interlibrary loan services of their local library.

I often feel badly about it, as if I’m abandoning them on the doorstep of their public library with little more than a note pinned to their clothes. On the other hand, they are members of the community and thus are entitled to their local library services. And they are likely able to get an ILL more quickly from their local library than if we ordered a book from Amazon, received it here, and then mailed it to them. Of course there have been times when a student has come back to us stating that their library won’t do ILL, but those are fortunately rare cases.

What I always find interesting is the fact that our students have no idea that most public libraries do provide ILL services. They are floored when I tell them that. It doesn’t occur to many of them to even see what their local public library might have to offer them. Public libraries often have excellent microfilm collections with lots of great primary source historical material. We don’t mail our microfilm to students, so if they can find and access back issues of The Chicago Defender or Harper’s at their public library, that is a great thing. The students don’t think of this. When I suggested to one graduating student that he could do research in the future at his local public library (which was the Pima County Library, a huge and excellent system), he said that his wife takes their toddler there, but that it wouldn’t have much to offer him. Then I showed him the list of databases available through the library and he realized that there might be some things he could benefit from.

So consider that when a public library provides a service to a distance learner, they may be creating a lifelong patron.

What I found most frustrating about Carleen’s post was the attitude of the University:

The response I recieved was that they didn’t feel the need to spend the money on another library since they had a computer lab and well, us. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get it through to them how much their students need better access to university library resources. Not to mention, a university librarian… I get the feeling that they expect distance students going to other branches to travel all the way to the main campus in order to get full library services.

Well, I agree that they probably shouldn’t build a new library. However, they could offer information literacy classes online. They could create tutorials for their distance learners and put them in the students’ online classrooms. They could even collaborate with the public library. Perhaps they could give the librarians access to their databases, so that they could teach the students what was available and how to use it. Maybe they could purchase some print nursing resources and keep them at the library or could at least mail books to the public library. If the public librarians were willing, maybe they could use the computer lab at the satellite campus to teach information literacy classes (which would earn those public librarians a gold star in my book). The University library shouldn’t just leave it at “well the students should come to the main campus.” You go where your students are. You provide services to them at their point of need. Otherwise, what good are you?

So many universities have gone gung-ho into offering online programs. These programs often make a lot of money for the universities. Too often, the university doesn’t put much (or any) of that money into the library. If you have online learners, chances are good that you’re going to need to beef up your library’s online services and collections. But the libraries don’t escape blame here. I have examined the websites of libraries at major universities that offer distance learning programs and have seen nothing for distance learners. If I search their site I will sometimes find a page that tells them how to log into the proxy server, but that’s it. Too many libraries don’t provide online information literacy instruction or even simple HTML tutorials. And even if they do, these services aren’t usually integrated into the online courseware the students use. A student’s course management system (WebCT, eCollege, Moodle, etc.) is essentially their online campus. If the library isn’t in there, how can you possibly expect your students to utilize your collections and services?

I feel very lucky that our library was never an afterthought when Norwich planned for distance learning. The library has been very well funded by the distance learning programs. We have been able to purchase a lot of new stuff for the distance learners and have been able to buy lots of books for students in programs where the online resources have been insufficient (like military history). But even if library services are an afterthought, there are a lot of things libraries can do to at least make their current resources more accessible to their students and easier to find. There is no excuse for a situation where a large chunk of your students are only using the public library for their research.