Irving, D. (2004), "Distance Learning Library Services: The 10th Off‐Campus Library Services Conference (Proceedings)", Program: electronic library and information systems, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp. 279-280. https://doi.org/10.1108/00330330410566150
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
During the past few years libraries have recognised the need to provide services to ensure that distance learners have access to resources. 1992 saw the first US conference concerned with the provision of these services. Ten years on, Distance Learning Library Services presents the Proceedings from the 10th Off‐Campus Library Services Conference. The papers presented at the conference explore several approaches to delivering library services at a distance, and would be of potential interest to anyone involved in delivering such services, especially to those designing new services.
Where this book falls down is in its lack of structure. The conference does not seem to have been organised around themes and as a result the 44 papers seem to have been presented in an ad hoc arrangement. A thematic organisation would have greatly facilitated topical searching and usability.
Although it is obvious from reading these papers that much work has been conducted in the US in this field, these papers are very heavy on US product placement. This creates a struggle for the UK audience to identify the function of some of the products, and this detracts from the usefulness of the examples given.
Very few of the papers present a clear definition of their customers. Terms such as “non‐traditional student”, “off‐campus student”, “outreach student”; are interchanged with the term “distance student” throughout. My experience of dealing with distance learners is that each group is distinct. The needs and opportunities of the distance learner taking a correspondence course differ from one taking a course through a VLE (virtual learning environment). Some may visit the campus occasionally, some not at all. They may be taught together at a satellite campus, or may have no physical access to services or to other students. Perhaps the greatest criticism of these papers is that without knowing the extent of the students’ access to the library (and the library's access to the student) it is difficult to relate the services and solutions explored in these papers, to other distance learners.
In a paper exploring library instruction, it is assumed that librarians can create portable instruction materials and take them to be presented wherever the students are based. Surely it is more common that the librarian does not have the opportunity to address the students personally. Methods for giving instruction to students under these circumstances are not examined. Other papers, however, do explore off‐campus provision, with a number examining the use of VLEs in the provision of library instruction. One of the most interesting papers concerned with information skills is given by Dunlap in the paper “Watch for the little red light: delivery of bibliographic instruction by unconventional means”. Dunlap gives an honest account of his interactions with teaching media, and compares the delivery of instruction using videoconferencing, online and traditional classes.
Some of the papers are concerned with setting up new services for distance learners from scratch. These make excellent case studies, exploring how institutions perceive and meet the needs of their distance learning students. However, with little difference between the services at each institution, the papers become quite repetitive and have an element of overkill. A more compact method of comparing services and their administration is given in a panel discussion “Fair is fair, or is it? Library services to distance learners” where representatives from various institutions explore their institutional challenges. Within this format it is easier to compare the structure and successes of several approaches.
There are some excellent insights, but the book is rather light on implementation. For example, most papers point out the need for distance learners to access an equivalent service to their traditional student colleagues, whilst services are described, there is little mention of evaluating whether the same level of service has been achieved.
Some papers offer a different angle by examining a single element that makes up their distance learning service. Key topics for these papers include document delivery, service Web pages, online resources, quality and assessment of services and surveying user needs. For me these were the most useful papers, providing the reader with practical solutions. One such paper surveyed US academic libraries to determine the most useful content for Web sites supporting distance learners. The result is a list of key content that no distance learning library Web page should be without.
The scope of some of the papers, however, is too wide. Many describe services of relevance to all students. Whilst some of these papers are interesting and informative, they can leave the reader wondering if they really belong in a collection of papers on distance learning library services. For example, in Hricko's paper, “Using the Invisible Web to teach information literacy”, examination is given to methods of teaching information literacy that can be applied to all students whether on or off campus. Another paper examines the effect of commercial services on library provision, again an interesting topic, but pertinent to access to resources for any student.
The strengths of the book are in the abundance of case studies. Most papers present practical examples to overcoming problems in their own institutions. However, whilst the book explored solutions to problems at a variety of institutions, there was nothing new here. I feel an opportunity was missed in terms of covering some of the more leading edge developments in this area.