Virginia Libraries v56n2 - Library Information Services for Distance-Based Customers: An Emerging Mandate for the Digital Age

Those of us who have worked in libraries since before the advent of the World Wide Web, digitized journal collections, electronic book downloads, and online social networking have adapted to monumental changes in the ways in which we strive to serve our customers. User expectations in the so-called digital age pose special challenges for academic and public libraries in particular. One such challenge is an emerging demand for information services by customers who prefer to work from off-site, most notably students who are enrolled in distance-based education programs. This article describes a recently implemented distance learning library services model at a small Virginia college.


... until recently distance
learners have represented
a somewhat underserved

According to a 2010 report by the Babson Survey Research Group, there are over 4.6 million online postsecondary students in the United States. 1 The same report cites a growth rate of 17% for online education, which dwarfs the 1.2% growth of the overall higher education population. This means that more and more students are able to complete their college degrees without ever setting foot on a bricks and mortar campus. U.S. Department of Education data indicate that by 2007, 97% of public two-year institutions and 89% of public four-year institutions were already offering college-level distance learning courses. 2 However, until recently distance learners have represented a somewhat underserved population. Mandates to provide library support specifically for distance-based learners have come from the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the major accrediting body for Virginia colleges and universities. Libraries are therefore exploring innovative ways in which to serve this rapidly growing virtual community.

The Jefferson College of Health Sciences, located in Roanoke, Virginia, is a professional health sciences college, offering the Masters of Science degrees in Nursing, Physician Assistant, and Occupational Therapy as well as 12 baccalaureate and associate healthcare programs. Total student enrollment currently stands at about 1,100 FTE with some programs of study being completely distance-based. In January of 2009, a dedicated Distance Learning Library Service was implemented in support of the more than 50 distance education courses being taught by over 30 faculty members at the College. The philosophical premise of the initiative is that distance learners deserve access to essentially the same library and information resources as those enjoyed by on-campus students, including a synchronous means of communication with a professional librarian.

Photo of Librarian Brad MacDonald in his home office, wearing headset and using desktop computer to serve health sciences students.

Librarian Brad MacDonald serves health sciences students from his home office.

Program Implementation

An initial obstacle to any online distance-based library service is user authentication. Many colleges and universities rely upon digital courseware to deliver their distance education content, and this represents a logical means of authenticating customer identity. In our case, a special course “shell” was created using the Blackboard learning management system. Each student, staff, and faculty member already has a unique login to this courseware, thus the distance education library support page is accessible to anyone who is directly affiliated with the College. A Blackboard menu button labeled “Library Help,” which directs users to the Distance Learning Library Services site in Blackboard, is added to each distance education course offered by the College.

Many distance-based learners are nontraditional students, often holding full time jobs as they matriculate and earn their degrees. Since our service was to be managed by a single off-site librarian, it was decided to spread service hours over a split shift, with both morning and evening coverage provided during weekdays. The live service is presently offered between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and noon and again from the hours of 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. during weekdays. Traditional students are likely to utilize the service during morning hours whereas nontraditional, working students are more likely to require library assistance in the evenings. For one semester, we experimented with coverage on Sunday evenings but discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that there was little demand for the service during that time.

Scope of Service

The Distance Learning Library Services user site is designed to be as comprehensive as possible. In addition to providing an interface for reference services, the site includes a section for frequently asked questions, links to local and regional online library catalogs (including WorldCat), a variety of program-specific subject guides and pathfinders, and a section of online tutorials for using each subscription database offered by the College. An “Electronic Resources Gateway” link takes users to more than 50 online databases, primarily subscription-based electronic journal and e-book resources. We also provide extensive information on using the American Psychological Association citation style format, which our students are required to follow for each paper or project they produce while at the College. Finally, there is a section for submitting requests for articles to be scanned from our physical journal collection or to be received via Interlibrary Loan. For this, the distance learning librarian liaises with services already in place at the College’s campus library.

Reference Services and Individual Research Support via Email

The distance learning library service provides both synchronous and asynchronous support. Customers are at liberty to select the method of contact that best accommodates their level of need. Most users who are not time constrained will choose to contact the service using email. A dedicated email address was created for the service, and, during hours of live coverage, turnaround time is generally under five minutes. Often at the beginning of the evening shift there will be one or two email requests that have come in during the afternoon.

An email request for research assistance involves the completion of a simple online form, available at the Distance Learning Library Services site. Users enter their contact information and are asked to respond to a variety of questions about the nature of their research. They will indicate primary keywords and terms associated with their topic, what resources they have thus far explored, and what special requirements they face—for example, citing no articles older than five years. This information is sent directly to the distance learning librarian’s email account where questions are fielded in the order in which they are received.

Email has the advantage of allowing document file attachments and saved computer screen shots. The librarian maintains a folder of responses to routine questions, generally in the form of graphic documents saved in Web layout, which demonstrate solutions to common queries. For example, we are often asked how to limit a search in a particular database to only research articles, peer-reviewed sources, or by publication date. Using screen shots and descriptive text, an email attachment can walk a user through a very clear and concise step-by-step process. As unique requests come in and more pathfinders are created, the pool of these tutorials continues to grow. Frequently, an attached pathfinder along with a personal message and follow up perfectly addresses a user’s need.

Telephone Support

Customers having immediate information needs tend to select one of the synchronous contact methods: telephone or live chat via instant messaging. The distance library service maintains a dedicated telephone number from a cellular service provider. The librarian is equipped with a Blackberry Curve, which doubles as an email interface for quick interactions where attachments or screen shots are not required. Often the Blackberry is placed on speaker mode, freeing the librarian’s hands to operate the computer while talking with a student.

Most academic institutions recognize information literacy as being a key competency for independent study and self-directed learning. Mindful of this, the librarian, to the extent possible while using the telephone, attempts to teach users how to locate information themselves. As cable modem and DSL access to the Internet become the norm, it is generally possible for customers to follow along, using their home computers as the librarian walks them through an information retrieval process. Pacing is important since connectivity speeds vary from user to user. Some customers still rely upon dial up Internet service while using a cell phone to speak to the librarian. Others live in rural areas and utilize satellite-based services such as HughesNet or WildBlue, which are much slower than cable or DSL. Good communication skills are required to ensure that the librarian is keeping pace with what the users are actually seeing on their home computers.

Live Chat

The user simply begins
typing inside the chat box
in order to initiate a live
reference exchange.

An innovative approach to real time reference support is the use of Internet-based live chat or instant messaging. There are a number of available programs that can provide this function. We have selected a program called meebo® ( which has the advantage of supporting most common instant messaging programs and of being free of charge. Downloading a meebo® “widget” allows the embedding of a chat interface directly into a website or, in our case, a Blackboard shell. This download allows a user to see an open chat window built directly into the distance learning library site. The user simply begins typing inside the chat box in order to initiate a live reference exchange. A built-in chime alerts the librarian that a remote user has opened a chat session. The small, moveable chat window on the desktop does not interfere with the librarian’s ability to work with other software and applications. A chat interface makes a handy means of sharing links to websites or persistent links to subscription journal articles. Some messaging programs include a method of conveying actual files so graphical pathfinders may be sent directly to the users. Texting and messaging is the preferred method of contact for some students and will likely become more popular as the mobility and functionality of networkable devices continue to improve.

Screenshot of Meebo® chat interface in use by student and librarian.

Meebo® makes it possible to do live chat free of charge.


Possibly the most innovative and effective approach to distance library support today is the use of screencasting software. Simply, a screencast is a digital recording of computer screen output with accompanying customized audio narration. There are a number of open source screencasting programs available. We have selected a program called Jing® which is a free download from TechSmith®, makers of the popular Camtasia® and SnagIt® capture programs ( TechSmith® also offers an inexpensive Pro Version of Jing® that provides enhanced functionality, but for our purposes, the freeware version has worked perfectly.

Using Jing® software and a microphone headset, the librarian is able to create up to three minutes of streaming video with audio narration. Typically, a screencast consists of an online search that is personalized to a student’s specific need. It will often involve locating scholarly information on the Web or navigating one of our subscription databases. The librarian conducts the search while giving a step by step narration, tailored to the student. Sometimes a student has provided enough detail on the reference assistance request form in order for the librarian to conduct a sample search on the actual research topic.

Anyone who has worked with Camtasia® or other screencasting programs knows that file sizes can be unwieldy on a local network and can strain available bandwidth. The beauty of Jing® is that screencast files may be stored off site and therefore do not tax the library’s server or network capacity. One of Jing’s file saving destinations is to ( where 2GB of storage space is available at no charge. Once a screencast file is stored at, a unique filename similar to a URL is generated. This file link can be emailed to the customer who simply clicks it in order to view the screencast, using speakers or headphones for the audio portion. For tutorial purposes, the file link can also be embedded in a website or an online course so the screencast may be viewed by an entire class.

In effect, this process is like freezing a live search that a reference librarian might demonstrate to a customer in a bricks and mortar library setting. An added advantage is that a student is able to view a screencast over and over again to ensure a complete understanding of the process being demonstrated. Diligent deletion of obsolete screencast files prevents usage from exceeding the free 2GB file storage limit. For a small fee, online storage capacity can be greatly expanded. Of course, screencast files may also be saved locally.


Any new library service or initiative takes time to become established. The marketing of distance library services at the Jefferson College of Health Sciences has been somewhat challenging. A series of email messages are sent to each distance education faculty member, explaining the scope of the service and encouraging the promotion of the “Library Help” menu button which is automatically inserted into Blackboard course shells. More than one year after implementation, we still occasionally see faculty referring their distance education students to the campus librarians. Similarly, requests to faculty for copies of their major research assignments each semester have met with only partial compliance. It is hoped that in time, a more collaborative spirit may be cultivated as faculty and students become familiar with the availability and scope of the relatively new service.

The distance learning librarian is a telecommuting position, managed from a home office located about 90 miles from campus. Managing this service from a remote site has both pros and cons. On the plus side, there is no need for the facility to provide scarce office space for the librarian, and even severely inclement weather does not prevent the service from functioning. There is also a distinct advantage in the distance librarian being able to see exactly what the user is seeing, since both parties are accessing online information largely independent of the library’s local area network. When providing telephone support from the campus library, it is common for a librarian using an internal network to have a different online experience from a remote customer who is using an external ISP. The problem is obviated when the librarian is also using an external provider.

The distance learning
librarian represents a
“human” factor in what can
often be the very
impersonal world of
distance education.

The distance learning librarian represents a “human” factor in what can often be the very impersonal world of distance education. While teaching faculty are primarily an email presence and tend to come and go from a distance-based student’s virtual orbit, the online librarian represents a constant. Students who use the service for one class tend to come back for help with future classes, and the use of telephone and live chat make these some of the more personal interactions they may experience as distance learners.

A clear disadvantage of being based off-site is the lack of “face time” with faculty and administration and the inability to attend many of the various meetings and other functions that take place on campus. To ensure the program remains vital in the minds of the campus community, it must be continually marketed. Strategies include presentations on distance learning library services offered during faculty in-service days, short pieces about the service in the campus newsletter, a brochure describing the service, and periodic email reminders to distance education faculty. Evaluating the effectiveness of the service has also proven to be rather difficult as there tends to be a very low return rate for student satisfaction surveys in general. This represents an area where alternative strategies will need to be explored.


Students are increasingly selecting academic programs that mesh with their busy lifestyles, and, therefore, the demand for distance-based academic library support will doubtless continue to increase. Public libraries face similar challenges as patrons come to expect instant responses to their information requests and as they warm to the idea of electronic books and magazines. Mobile devices are already ubiquitous and their capabilities are rapidly evolving. Many pundits claim that the very survival of our profession hinges upon our ability to successfully compete in the digital forum. Every library should have a fundamental plan for providing some level of remote service to their customer base. Inexpensive or free tools are in place for the provision of basic, high quality distance library services at most libraries today. Vendors are beginning to market their own turn-key subscription-based versions of virtual reference services. Managers of all libraries will be forced to explore creative staffing models in order to address a trend that will certainly only continue to grow.


1. I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009 (Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group, 2010), 1.

2. Basmat Parsad and Laurie Lewis, Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2006–07 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2008), Table 1. VL