I run a library at a university of nearly 22,000 students, but I know that two-thirds of them will never step foot in our library. Ditto for hundreds of our professors. These students and faculty are either teaching or learning online or at one of our over 100 extended campuses worldwide.
So when I read any of the slew of reports that come out about the library “as a place,” I worry a bit. What do these on-site spaces mean to our growing population of distance education students and professors? The concept of the "library as place" was most recently reviewed in a report published by the Council on Library and Information Resources entitled "The Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space."  Few would argue with the authors that the library is vitally important to higher education institutions in helping them achieve their mission. Indeed, if designed or renovated around the institution’s learning principles as outlined in an issue of Educause Review,  the library can offer spaces and services to support virtually all of the latest learning theory principles. As summarized by Colleen Carmean and Jerry Haefner, deep learning occurs when it is “social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned.”  What better place on campus to provide social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned environments than the library with its wired reading and study spaces, reference and access services, collaborative study rooms, rich print and digital collections, media facilities and -- in many cases -- cafes, information commons, conference space, classrooms, displays, and art installations.
How can libraries translate the benefits that our physical libraries offer to on-campus students and professors to serve our distance education students and faculty members in an equitable way? I believe we can do this through careful planning during building and renovation projects, through the creation or revamping of services and collections, and through the creation of specialized services to promote community and active learning.
During library building and renovation projects, space and technical infrastructures should be planned in a new way. Private office space for professionals, for example, is more important when a librarian could be on a lengthy, complicated phone call with a student overseas. Ample processing space is necessary for paraprofessionals providing document delivery and electronic reserves service. Growth space for developing print and media collections and robust technical infrastructure for access to the library’s digital resources also take on new importance in a distributed campus network.
Many other changes are needed that don’t have to do with physical structures but with services and resources that have real costs and need to be part of the library budget. For example, creation or revamping of services and collections should be undertaken with the overarching goal of providing services and resources to distance education students and faculty that are the equivalent of those provided on-campus. Services might include, for example, online request forms and second-day delivery of books and media from the main library to the requestor’s home or office with prepaid return labels; or online faculty reservations of videos/DVDs with delivery to the faculty’s home, office, or campus (if any). Several options might be offered for reference service, including live chat; Web conferencing with the capability to share screens; e-mail with a guaranteed 24-hour response; or low-tech, low-cost toll-free telephone assistance, which some patrons may prefer. Options for posting required or suggested readings might include a full-scale electronic reserves system or assistance with scanning and posting items to a courseware page, university portal, or Web page. Increasingly, libraries are taking a leadership role on campus in educating faculty about copyright compliance, while ensuring that their faculty may make full use of the rights accorded under the fair use provision of copyright law.
Providing opportunities for information literacy instruction to distance education students can be challenging but is possible through a variety of means. Options range from designing an online credit course to creating a series of online tutorials. The latter may be home-grown or adapted at no charge from established sites such as the Texas Information Literacy Tutorial.  Webcasting technology offers the opportunity to “visit” remote classrooms at the request of the faculty member and tailor an instruction session to a particular assignment. All that is needed is a camera, computer, Internet connection, and Web conferencing software.
Providing equivalent resources to distance education students has a few challenges but is increasingly becoming easier. The number of academic databases with full-text content is growing exponentially. In many cases, it is possible to use existing funds by shifting resources from print to online. In other cases, consortiums may reduce the costs for a particular institution. Students love full-text articles but appear to be slow in adopting electronic books. If e-books are provided as a supplement to print resources available via document delivery, however, and marketed effectively as a database of information rather than as discrete titles to be read cover-to-cover, they can be useful.
Our challenge increasingly is not the inability to provide sufficient online resources but to make them the resources of choice by our students. We must compete with Internet search engines such as Google to market the quality of our resources and to make them as easy to search as possible. Software tools such as federated searching, which enables searching across many databases, and open URL resolvers, which enable more direct linking to full-text sources, go a long way in making our resources easier to use. However, we need to work with these software producers on continuing enhancements to these products and on new products that make research more seamless.
Perhaps most challenging for libraries in serving distance education students and faculty is creating a sense of community to promote learning. Some libraries are experimenting with blogs to address this, but these seem to have limited reach and focus. One promising direction, however, is helping distance education professors to promote community and active learning. The new library at my institution, Webster University, includes a Faculty Development Center that supports both on-campus faculty and distance education faculty. Resources for off-campus faculty include a discussion forum, where faculty members may discuss any topic on teaching and learning; share their expertise with each other; review new techniques to improve learning outcomes; discuss instructional technology software/hardware; or address common learning issues. Other resources include a new faculty orientation course, an active learning handbook, and most recently, live Web conferencing with a staff of instructional support specialists to offer individualized instructional support to faculty regardless of their location. Many institutions may find similar ways to serve the teaching and learning needs of their faculty in ways that benefit students.
In the last decade, almost a half-billion dollars per year  have been invested in new or renovated academic libraries. With this rate of investment, it is imperative that we ensure that these new and renovated libraries meet the needs of our growing distance education population. We can do this in many ways -- by investing in new resources, staff, and services; or by leveraging existing resources (in some cases across departments) in creative ways -- but do it we must.
Laura Rein is dean of University Library and co-director of the Faculty Development Center at Webster University. ReinÂ Laura co-teaches an online seminar for the Association of College and Research Libraries entitled “All Users are Local: Bringing the Library Next Door to the Campus Worldwide.”