Distance Education Librarians: The View from Charlottesville and Blacksburg
by Esther Onega and Dave Beagle
The following two articles outline the work perspectives of the librarians who coordinate distance education at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech libraries,respectively.
The Invaluable Distance Education Librarian
By Esther Onega
Specialty librarians know their clientele and what matters most to them. Law librarians, for example, know that accuracy and speed are essential in helping an attorney with research before the ever-present deadline arrives. The same type of knowledge is essential for distance education librarians. Although accuracy and speed are still important, a student taking a distance education class needs to believe that the library can help when he or she is working on an assignment or research paper. This is accomplished by creating a personal relationship with these distant students, which is admittedly a challenge.
At the University of Virginia, we have eight regional centers located around the Commonwealth. Each center tailor sits portfolio of graduate programs, non-credit and open enrollment courses,and other educational events and programs to its community.Our graduate programs are mainly in the field of education but also include urban planning and engineering. Most of the students who contact me are working on a master's degree or doctorate in education and need technical help just to access our online catalog and collections.But their even greater need for help occurs when they wonder which databases to use, how to search a database effectively, how to request the library materials that they need, and what to do when they are confronted with a library problem (a book is recalled,they have a fine, etc.). I am the point of contact in all these areas.
Besides providing a valuable service by being a one-stop resource in a direct relationship with a student, I also have been able to work behind the scenes at the library and in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies to advocate for their needs. For example, I worked on the library's Electronic Reserve Task Force to ensure that off-grounds students would have access to electronic materials, and I am currently on the school's Student Services Committee to make sure that the school includes library service issues in its plans.
I back up these local initiatives by working closely with the staff at the regional centers so they can forward library questions to me and distribute handouts to students and adjunct faculty. Because of my emphasis on personal relationships and service, staff at regional centers do not hesitate to contact me whenever they find it necessary. My biggest challenge is establishing a relationship with adjunct faculty. I am working with the school to take advantage of their expanded communications efforts, such as targeted listservs.
My work with distance education students operates on three levels: I work with them personally in addressing their individual questions, locally in Charlottesville through the library and school, and around Virginia through the centers and in course-specific library research presentations. This work has been rewarding for me and, most importantly, the students appreciate the help they receive. A student wrote an especially complimentary statement on an evaluation for a presentation I gave during the spring 2000 semester that sums up our mutual experience, "I wish I would have had this training at the beginning of the program! You do a fantastic job. Thank you."
Supporting Distance Education Student sat Virginia Tech
By Dave Beagle
I have been the distance education librarian at Virginia Tech since October 1995. Initially, the position entailed working with the resident staff (directors and technical staff) at Virginia Tech's four graduate centers located across the Commonwealth (Abingdon, Falls Church, Roanoke, and Virginia Beach).
Now, most of my contacts come directly from individual students, who typically find me from e-mail links on the Virginia Tech Library's distance education web site (http://www.lib.vt.edu/services/extended/index.html). Their e-mails then generate follow-up e-mails and/or phone calls depending on the nature and urgency of the problem.
The web site is intended to direct distance education students to the right place: to the on-line reference service Ask Us for quick informational questions, to college librarians for detailed discipline-specific questions, and to ILLiad for interlibrary loan and document delivery questions. To the extent that it is possible, off-campus students are treated just like on-campus students and the persons or units responsible for on-campus library services endeavor to provide equivalent services to distance education students.
One of the key contacts for distance education students is the college librarian. At Virginia Tech, academic departments are assigned a librarian who is responsible for all aspects of library services: reference, instruction, and collection development. These individuals, typically called college librarians because most have offices in the library as well as in an academic college, serve as the official primary contacts for all students in their areas regardless of location. On-campus students have more ready opportunities, obviously, to meet and interact with these librarians at the reference desk and during classroom instructional sessions. Distance education students have means as well, primarily e-mail and the telephone.
But, despite our efforts to route students appropriately, students are often confused as to where to go.Enter the distance education librarian, who serves as a sort of catchall to handle anything and everything that comes from remote students-the person of first resort and the person of last resort.
Although these contacts involve a wide variety of topics, including many general university procedural questions completely unrelated to library services, the number one issue is connecting to the library's restricted resources:databases, e-journals, and e-reserve. Like many institutions, the Virginia Tech Library uses a proxy server as a means for remote users not connecting from recognized campus IP addresses to access restricted resources. While there are detailed proxy server configuration instructions by browser type and version on the distance education web page, the basic premise is confusing to many and some students simply want personal attention, either through e-mail or over the telephone.
So my typical day involves a lot of e-mail messages and long-distance telephone calls. This personal one-on-one contact is the core of what makes this position enjoyable to me and is the essence, I think, of what makes it an important position within the library system. One person alone cannot handle all of the needs of the numerous students enrolled in distance education courses and programs. But that one person can serve as a gateway to the library and to the university and is someone whose performance helps to set the tone for many remote students' expectations and satisfaction levels.
There are lots of other interesting aspects to the distance education librarian position beyond contacts with individual students, such as working with the staff of the university's Institute for Distributed and Distance Learning and working cooperatively with colleagues in reference and instruction. Bottom line: it is a challenging job with a high level of satisfaction because it allows me to interact with students from all disciplines on a wide variety of issues,library and otherwise.