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I am in Memphis this week attending the 15th Annual Distance Library Services Conference sponsored by Central Michigan University Libraries. This biennial conference (held on the alternate years from ACRL), has been around since the 1980s – which tells you how long libraries have been talking about supporting distance users. The focus of this group has broadened from supporting remote users at satellite campuses (which MANY here still do) to also supporting online students who may never have any contact with a building or campus at all. But a theme I’m hearing this year (and you know I love themes) is that it is no longer easy, possible or desirable to differentiate between ‘distance’ and ‘on-campus’ students. If they are using the web to interact with you, they are all distant students/faculty/staff at least some of the time. In other words, even your students and faculty that spend the most time in your library building, checking out your print materials and working one on one in person with reference librarians, are also accessing your materials and services online. So libraries need to intentional in how we craft ALL of our content, our services, our support online to be sure it can support any student or faculty, not just those that are totally online.

This is actually comforting to me in many ways, because it means we don’t have to reinvent what we do just to serve this new (to WFU) population of fully online students. We need to be thinking about all of our services, support and content that we provide via our Internet presence(s) to be sure it works for ALL of our community members. The goal should be to have self-service help information AND clear ways to get in touch with us virtually or in-person. We can and should have multiple ways to interact with our services and content that suits multiple access methods and preferences. So it is with that framework that I’ll discuss a few of the sessions/topics I found enlightening.

I attended two sessions that discussed Discovery Services (one was Ebsco Discovery, the other Summon). Both sessions were looking at being sure you get your investments worth out of these useful, but expensive services. The first looked at integrating instruction on the services into virtual reference sessions via pre-recorded screencasts of common issues. The other, more interesting one (to me) was a user survey of distance students to see if and how they used a discovery service. They found that 42% of their respondents started their research with Google or Google Scholar, 26% started with library databases (this group primarly came from those who got their library instruction before Summon was available) and 22% started with Summon. But they also found that 81% said they used other sources besides the place they started. When asked to rank as useful or essential, students ranked Google results as useful, but Summon results as essential. 61% said that Summon improved their ability to research effectively. The take-away here I think is that if discovery services are here to stay (and I think they are at least for a while), then we need to do our best to provide self-service and on the spot assistance in using them efficiently and effectively so they are useful to our students and might stand a chance of becoming the starting point for them the next time they begin a research project. This goes for online AND on-campus students equally.

One of the more interesting sessions I attended was one on creating a sense of library as place for online users from folks at Bucks Community College. They went with Boopsie, a company that creates branded mobile apps for libraries. They have a lovely app (called Bucks Mobile) that is a nice one-stop place for doing many of the things a mobile user might want. But after their presentation, the discussion came around to the pros and cons of going with an app or with a mobile web site. With an app, you have to rely on people to download the app. With a mobile web site they can use their browser, BUT you have to have web design expertise if you are going to design a mobile site that can provide users with as many options as an app can. There are times and places that either option would be the right choice, but what came out in the discussion that it is critical to have a mobile presence of some sort if we are really going to meet our users where they are with the devices they have with them. This, again, is true no matter if you students are fully online, or fully on-campus. The mobile device is their constant companion.

Finally, one particularly interesting session was about using a knowledge base as a way to support your users when you aren’t available. The presentation was short because the presenters realized they had more questions than answers about the topic, so there was a really great discussion period. There was A LOT of love in the room for LibAnswers, a product we are looking at, and a general recognition that no matter what product you choose, you have to commit to keep it up to date but that we may worry a bit too much about perfection in a knowledge base, when our students are used to knowledge bases (like Microsoft, Apple, etc.) where perfection isn’t the standard. One BIG benefit of having a knowledge base is that it does allow for self-service help for patrons (if yours is publicly searchable) any time of the day or night. The LibAnswers product also allows for a public questions, so you can benefit from the immense knowledge of other librarians. Do we all need to create our own MLA or APA questions and answers on our sites? Probably not but together we can probably create a really strong Q&A set for all of our students.

Of course, at any conference, some of the best discussions come between the sessions when you get to meet people and hear about what they are doing. What is comforting to hear is that we are not all that far behind in our thinking about supporting online students, because we give such good attention to supporting our on-campus students. Still, there will a lot for our new eLearning Librarian to consider and help us plan!! Now on to Graceland!!