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Editor’s Note: This paper deals with multiple challenges - integration of online and traditional library services, providing equivalent levels of service for online learners, and accomplishing this quickly with limited budgets. It reviews what other libraries are doing or have already done to meet these challenges.

Delivering Library Services to Distance Learners:
A Grass Roots Effort at a Regional Campus

Tammy Guerrero, Kim Whalen, Lynda R. Willer
United States


Purdue University Calumet (PUC), a regional campus in northwest Indiana, serves over 9,500 students. Though over 8,000 students currently use the University’s course management system for online education, the PUC Library faces many challenges in providing necessary resources and services to distance learners. In 2006, new Library Faculty began integrating online library services through a ‘grass roots’ effort at a course and faculty level which is described in this paper. PUC Librarians must overcome the challenge of limited budgets, experience, infrastructure, technology knowledge, time and campus culture in order to deliver library services equitably to both on-campus and online learners.

Keywords: Course management systems, distance education, distance learning, library services, library instruction, online instruction, instructional technology


Libraries have been delivering services to distance learners and remote users for over a century. Evidence of this dates back to 1892, when, as Moyo (2003) claims, Penn State became one of the first universities to offer correspondence study to rural students (p. 282). From those humble beginnings, many institutions of higher learning have provided programs to accommodate nontraditional learners and continue to improve programs each year. In fact, a national study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, (2003, p. iii) reported 2,320, or 56% of all 2-year and 4-year Title IV-eligible, degree granting institutions, offered distance education courses.

At Purdue University Calumet (PUC), the number of courses using course management software to provide online learning has increased from 226 in the Spring semester of 2005 to 685 in the Fall semester of 2007. The number of students engaged in some aspect of online learning in one or more courses through course management software has increased in that same time period from 3,723 to 8,000. A critical component of distance education is the services provided by university libraries. Whether that involvement takes the form of library components in course management programs for students enrolled in online education courses or the form of online services to all students whether enrolled as a distance learner or not, a responsibility of academic libraries is to provide the same services to distance learners as it provides to those who come to campus to learn.

However, that provided service does not always occur easily or efficiently. Often the technology available and the services provided do not match. This may result from lack of resources - money, time or personnel. Another problem, providing needed online services, can be due to resistance to change. It is necessary to adapt to a changing student body demographic that searches online for information whether out of necessity as part of an online educational experience or because “Googling” has become their standard means of accessing information. Students new to a university may no longer ask “where’s the library?” and search for a physical library services building. Instead they may be searching for library services with the click of a mouse.

University libraries need to deliver services by means which meet the needs of the students. As Wittkopt (2003) suggests, library courses should provide students with a set of library skills including how to effectively use the research process (p.18). More importantly, the academic library needs to be accessible to the students so they can approach the learning experience with academic rigor. For example, librarians and professors want PUC students to be able to use library services appropriately, have skill in searching academic databases for information, be able to access information when needed, and be able to judge the credibility of information they find. de Jong and Branch (2005) express concern over results of studies that indicate that distance students do not take “full advantage of library services provided by their institutions –they rely on other less credible, resources of information” (p. 66). Thus, the need for library orientation and library utilization is just as critical for distance learners as it is for traditional on-campus students.

This article addresses the issues involved in delivering library services to distance learners by examining how these library services have been traditionally delivered and how services can be provided in the online environment. This article also provides a case study of development of a ‘grass roots’ effort to bring academic library services to distance learners.

Providing Traditional Library Services in an Online Format

To place the “new” role of librarians in the distance learning environment in context, it is vital to delineate the role librarians have played in providing educational support for instruction. Traditionally, librarians have been responsible for providing reference services to students, faculty and staff on campuses, building the library collections to support curriculum objectives of degree programs; serving as custodians for archival materials; enhancing access to materials through Interlibrary Loan, and increasing effective use of libraries through bibliographic instruction. An example of traditional delivery of library services is the information literacy session that plays a major part of the library experience for a college student.

In a PUC information literacy session, professors devote one of their class periods to library instruction. Usually, they call their specialist/library liaison and set up a day for their class visit. Library instruction, or information literacy, is vital to the retention of students. Library instructional sessions familiarize students with the Library and educate students on how to strategically search databases and electronic journals. When a student completes these sessions, the Library won’t be a daunting and unknown place.

PUC students meet in the electronic classroom in the Library for a three-part instructional session that consists of a lecture, Library tour, and one-on-one assistance from the librarian. Instructional sessions introduce students to the electronic catalog, electronic databases and journals, and the physical layout of the library via a walking tour. Students are encouraged to work on computers in the classroom after the lecture. The librarian canvases the room for people in need of help and conducts one-on-one instruction. Students are introduced to Boolean operators, wild card and truncated searches, and learn how to differentiate between scholarly, consumer and trade publications. For some sessions, the librarian will bring in samples of periodicals in different formats such as microfilm and bound and unbound periodicals. She/he may demonstrate other items from the Library’s collection, such as monographs, serials, and media and material from Archives or Special Collections. This gives the students an overview and hands-on experience.

Often a Library scavenger hunt is given which challenges the student to search for specific titles, types of material and electronic entries in the Library. This familiarizes students with the Library and teaches them how to use the databases and electronic catalog. The professor may use these scavenger hunts as a graded exercise. Some offer it as extra credit.

These sessions have proven to be very effective in making the incoming students familiar with the Library and the surrounding campus community.

Another way to deliver library instruction and information literacy training to PUC students is a classroom visit by the librarian. This is not as effective for new users because there is no physical tour of the library. This type of session is effective for showing the home page and navigating various databases, electronic journals, and the electronic catalog. Many professors prefer a librarian class visit because the visits are shorter (usually one-half hour) and leave time for the professor to lecture and assign work.

In this example, while labor intensive, the librarian is fairly passive. They wait for an information seeker - student or faculty - to come to them for assistance rather than going out and actively disseminating information. Anhang and Coffman (2002) claim that with distance learners, it is imperative that the once passive librarian take information out to the user (p. 51). Distance education has not required a shift in the mission of an academic library, but a shift in how that mission is accomplished. As more and more academic libraries respond to the challenges of distance education, the roles and responsibilities of academic librarians are changing. Sacchanand (2002) suggests he perception of librarians as information providers should be changed to facilitators of learning.

Librarians may also need to change their perception of library services. According to the year 2000 ACRL Library Trends, libraries are required to provide “equivalent resources to distance learners as they do to traditional learners.” But who are those distance learners and what are their needs, particularly when it comes to library services?

Barron (2002) argues that libraries are in the business of helping students get information they need “when they want it” and get it to them regardless of where they are physically located
(p. 26). Providing service to traditional library users can be somewhat different to providing the same service to distance learners. Burgstahler (2002) identifies the importance of ensuring access to everyone. Students who are employed and attending school part- or full-time, raising a family, returning to education, attempting to apply learning to career or personal needs, restricted by time and distance in completing coursework, and having out-of-date library skills, are students who match the description of distance learners provided by Alexander Slade as cited by de Jong and Branch (2005, p. 65). These characteristics can also influence whether distance learners make use of the library services provided for them (de Jong & Branch, 2005, p.65).

Additionally, many distance learners are also nontraditional students. According to a 2002 National Center for Education Statistics study, nearly three-quarters of all undergraduates are in some way “nontraditional.” These students need to use the library and require the same services as traditional students. Many nontraditional students work full time, are single parents, and are returning to school after a long pause. Some have never attended college before. Many are computer illiterate. If they are distance learners, they may never have set foot in an academic library or have not done so in many years.

Nontraditional students may not be able to devote as much time to their studies as traditional students, therefore, when they visit the library, or see a 20 minute podcast of a virtual library tour; they need it to be worth their precious time. They need to learn as efficiently as possible. They may need to revisit the library physically or virtually more than once before they find what they need or are able to navigate in a website or database Whatley (2006) identifies, “expectations that adult learners have for their educations have big implications for how libraries present instruction to these students” (p.100). It is important that librarians consider this type of student when designing web pages, podcasts or planning an instructional session.

Popovich and Neel (2005) report results of a study that illustrates how respondents ranked general reference information, commercial database searching, orientation to research strategies and use of the Internet as services provided by a librarian in distance education programs (p.237). These are important library services however they are delivered.

The initial reference interview is very important when trying to assist patrons. When done face-to-face with the traditional patron in the library, a librarian can ask direct questions, narrowing down the topic and getting to the bottom of what the person really is seeking. Trying to do a reference interview for a distance learner is more difficult. Some solutions to this problem would be chat rooms, Instant Messaging, or a 24/7 reference exchange service with other libraries. Roccos (2001) suggests that libraries can provide good interactive service through web portals or online courseware. Many libraries are combining or blending services so that when libraries are closed, libraries that are open that can provide phone or online reference service to patrons. It is important to realize, as de Jong and Branch (2005) point out, that “providing distance learners access to scholarly resources does not always translate into use of those resources” (p. 64).

Providing bibliographic or information literacy instruction to a distance learner can be more challenging than for someone who was able to come to an instructional session in the library. Those who are able to visit will benefit from a physical tour, hands-on practice with databases and electronic resources, and asking questions of the librarian. Distance learners may benefit from library components added to course management packages such as WebCT or Blackboard. Rieger (2004) provides information about linking course websites to library collections and services. Another effective tool is a virtual library tour conducted by a librarian via podcast or webinar. This would allow distance learners to experience the library without having to enter the building. Hahn and Lehman (2005) provide information on development of a “distance-delivered, for credit library and information literacy course” tailored to the needs of their students, most of whom will “never be on any of the campuses to receive face-to-face instruction” (p. 17).

Interlibrary Loan and document delivery can be a challenge for the distance learner. Many libraries rely on Interlibrary Loan to supplement or enhance their collections. Providing electronic journal articles to distance learners is not difficult compared to delivering paper resources. Many academic libraries do not have financial or human resources to provide remote delivery of paper documents. On the same note, most distance users don’t have the time or means to come to the library to study or to physically pick up materials. A courier would help, but this would require more funding, processing and administrative work for the library and added insurance liability.

E-books are an option where funding is available to purchase ebooks or to scan books or excerpts to be sent to remote users.

Many challenges arise as we consider delivering library services to distance learners. We know that  “keeping in contact with distance students is critical to their success” (Hahn & Lehman, 2005, p. 19). Resources such as the ethical framework for provision of library services to distance learners developed by Needham and Johnson (2007) and the model of assessment of library resources and services provided by Jerabek, McMain, Hardenbrook and Kordinak (2006) are invaluable for programs in development phases. Many library systems are light years ahead of us in providing services to distance learners. Yet, we know that other institutions face many of the same challenges and are struggling to make library services equitable for both on-campus and online students.

In the following section, we present a case study illustrating how some of these challenges have been faced.

A Case Study

Despite recognition of a need to provide quality library services to all students whether they receive education in a traditional classroom or in a virtual classroom, not all academic libraries have been able to meet these needs in a timely fashion. Many libraries, faced with an increasing student population in distance learning, developed library services as an online library course like one developed by Regent University (Lee & Yaegle, 2005). Still others developed programs to integrate online classrooms as in the Houston Community College System (Drumm & Havens, 2005). While many campuses are on the leading edge of administering online delivery of library services, others like PUC may be struggling to incorporate library services into distance learning. It is valuable to read about highly advanced programs; it is just as valuable to find a way to deliver library services. This has truly taken the format of a ‘grass roots’ program and may be useful for other university libraries in similar situations.

Getting on Track with Distance Learning at Purdue University Calumet

Though the Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services were approved by the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) in June of 2004, they have not fully trickled down into the daily operation of the PUC Library. According to the ACRL guidelines, “Members of the distance learning community are entitled to library services and resources equivalent to those provided for students and faculty in traditional campus settings.” With that in mind, PUC set out to improve the Library’s reach to distance learning and on-campus students by developing a presence within the University’s course management software.

PUC Library

PUC is part of the statewide five campus Purdue University system. Located in northwest Indiana, 120 miles from Purdue’s main West Lafayette campus and 25 miles from downtown Chicago, the campus offers associate, baccalaureate and master’s degrees in over 100 areas of study. Nearly 93% of over 9,300 students in the program reside in Indiana. Approximately 400 students reside on campus. Academic classes were first offered at PUC in 1946.

The PUC Library has undergone tremendous change in the last two years. During the summer of 2006 the Library altered the organizational structure and enhanced librarian positions to include a subject specialist/liaison role. Librarians were assigned subject specific areas in which to serve as liaisons to the faculty, managers of selected discipline collections, and providers of specialized instructional assistance to users.

Existing PUC librarians took on the roles of Social Sciences Librarian and the Education Librarian. New librarians were hired to fill the Humanities Librarian/Collection Management Librarian and the Science and Business Librarian. A search for an Engineering and Technology Librarian was undertaken but not completed. With the hiring of the two new library faculty, the library was able to improve services offered to both on-campus students and to distance learning students via the course management software.

The first service expansion in Fall 2006 was to have a member of the library faculty work collaboratively with academic faculty to integrate scholarly information sources into online learning and the university’s course management system. The Science and Business Librarian, new to the PUC Library, had previous experience developing course-specific web sites and subject research guides. The librarian had also collaborated with faculty to develop and market web sites and guides. Based on that experience, she became the first member of the library faculty to pilot the development of course management subject guides.

A Crash Course

After attending one WebCT Vista training session, the Librarian began speaking to faculty in the School of Nursing, School of Management and the Science departments about developing course management subject guides for their courses. She attended faculty department meetings and met one-on-one with faculty to promote the idea. Using other Library web guides as an example, she demonstrated to faculty how useful a select list of resources could be to students. As a result, subject guides, or learning modules as they are called in WebCT Vista, were created for more than 25 sections of 15 courses in the first year. Learning modules contain links to the campus online catalog, library databases, electronic journals, select Internet sites, Acrobat .pdf documents and original Word and PowerPoint documents containing search tips and screen shots. By request of the Nursing faculty, the librarian’s photograph was included in WebCT Vista course materials. The photograph was intended to “put a face with a name” and help bridge the miles between the librarian and the student.

The School of Nursing took the most advantage of this new library resource. By piquing the interest of a few influential faculty members, others soon followed. In addition to adding library learning modules in specific courses, the School asked that a comprehensive library resources module be created for the Graduate Student Resources and Advising Information course. Since WebCT Vista course access is limited only to those registered in that specific course, the comprehensive module was made accessible to all graduate nursing students regardless of their current schedule or course load. Interest from the School of Management faculty was slow at first but grew as the academic year progressed. Science faculty, including biology, chemistry, physics, computer science and math showed minimal interested in the service.

If a course was hybrid, meaning it contained an on-campus classroom or lab component; the librarian physically attended a session and used the learning module as an instructional guide. Students enrolled in a course that did not require them to physically come to campus were encouraged to call or email the Librarian to set up an appointment for assistance. Telephone consultations were promoted as an effective way to receive synchronous research assistance.

Rounding the Track

In August of 2007 the Library was invited to present library resource information to the Distance Education Faculty Development Training Program. Developed in 2005, the program was designed to help create a community of scholar-teachers in distance education to improve the quality of distance learning offerings at PUC and to help faculty develop skills in instructional design, pedagogy, media, and technologies used in teaching and learning. Approximately 25 faculty are accepted into the program each year. They are paired with a faculty mentor and the resources to develop their new distance learning course and ensure it’s success.

The August meeting was the first time that the Library was invited to participate in the Distance Education Faculty Development Training. The majority of the 28 current faculty participants and their eight alumni mentors were not aware that the Library could provide such a service to them and their students. As a result of this meeting, faculty members immediately requested assistance from their library liaison and various learning modules are currently in development.

Other Yellow Flags

The Library requested a library tab in Blackboard Vista version 4, the new course management system introduced to campus in the Fall of 2007 for all new courses. It has not yet developed online tutorials, e-mail reference service, Instant Messaging reference service, information literacy training podcasts, electronic reserves and comprehensive InterLibrary Loan services to non-area students.  The Library is actively seeking funding for two reference librarians that will add much needed experience and time to these activities.


Libraries have long provided services for distance learners. The explosion of online education has created challenges for institutions in various stages of development of methods to provide library services for the online learner. As Miller and Lu (2003) suggest “the issue of online learning is perhaps the most important facing higher education as individual institutions and as an industry in the past 100 years” (p. 168). Developing effective online learning strategies and assessing the effectiveness of that online learning will be critical as universities face this important issue. Benoit, Benoit, Milyo and Hansen (2006) present a summary of a study that examined traditional and web-assisted instruction and the impact on student learning and satisfaction.

The academic university library needs to face the issue of online learning as well. There are many challenges to be faced by institutions including limited staff, limited technology expertise, the structure of the traditional library, the specific library culture and campus culture, limited marketing to faculty and administration, and support by faculty and administration for library services. The necessity to frame library services to meet the needs of the students is important, not only to the success of the students but to the success of the university. As Miller and Lu (2003) so aptly conclude, “the transformation must be intentional, well-informed, and undertaken with a degree of caution that demonstrates a respect for intellectual knowledge, and must find a way to integrate a vastly different sense of knowledge capacity and management. To do these things effectively requires leaders of great skill, faculty of great concern, and a community committed to change” (p. 24).


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About the Authors

Tammy Guerrero, MLS, is a Social Sciences Librarian, Purdue University.

Kim Whalen, MLIS, is a Science and Business Librarian, Purdue University.

Lynda R. Willer, Ph.D. is from the Department of Communication and Creative Arts,
Purdue University. Email:

Purdue University Calumet
2200 169th Street
Hammond, IN 46323

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