Association of College & Research Libraries

The library’s Web site is the library

Julie Linden is research library resident at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; e-mail: She earned her MLS in 1998 a…istance student in Syracuse University's Independent Study Degree Program.

Designing for distance learners

As if it weren’t already complicated enough to design your library’s Web site for your patrons, along come…ew audience—distance learners. It i…afe bet that whether their education is delivered in limited on-campus sessions, over the Internet or through video, distance learners will increasingly look to the Web for academic support services, such as registration, course information, and the library. In fact, for distance students who seldom or never visit your library physically, the library’s Web site is the library.

When designing your Web site to accommodate these students, the first and perhaps most obvious step is to acknowledge their existence. Even if your library’s policy is to provide all students with the same resources and services, some of the details will necessarily be different. Distance students don’t need to know where interlibrary loan is located in the library building; they do need to know where to mail, e-mail, or fax their interlibrary loan requests.

Furthermore, unless you say so on your Web site, it is not necessarily clear to distance students whether library’s resources and services are available to them. They do not want to mak…hone call (possibly longdistance, possibly over several time zones) to find out whether they can use your ILL.

Even if your library does not offe…articular service or resource to distance learners, say so, and, if possible, suggest an alternative. Spell it out for every resource and service included on your Web site. The following examples suggest specific information to include for various types of library resources and services; you can customize and expand upon these recommendations on your own library’s Web site.


Can distance learners borrow books from your library? For how long? Will you mail books to them or must they be checked out on campus only? Must students pay the cost of mailing them back, and what is the average cost? How are recalls handled, and what is the time period for returning recalls? If possible, provid…ay for students to renew their books online (this is popular with residential borrowers, as well).

Do you have arrangements with other libraries from which your students can borrow books? What kind of identification will the student need to borrow from other libraries, and how will they obtain it?

Interlibrary loan/document delivery

Can distance learners use your library’s ILL, or are they expected to use their local library’s ILL? Will your ILL department retrieve and send articles from your own collection? What is the turnaround time? Is document delivery available to distance students? What, if anything, does it cost? Provide an online form for making ILL/document delivery requests.

Reference services

Don’t make distance students phone for reference help—they probably won’t. Provide e-mail service, whether you have designated one librarian or all your subject specialists to provide reference for distance learners. Let them know whether and how they can receive in-depth online consultations.

Accessing online databases

Which databases can students access remotely? Must they have an Internet account from your school or can they access the databases using any Internet service provider? Tell them how to get an account from your school and note that it may involve longdistance charges for out-of-area users. If you hav…roxy server for remote access, give them instructions on how to access it. Include an e-mail address an…hone number for technical help—and expect to get at least e-mail. When you’ve identifie…echnical problem and solution, add it to the instructions or t…roubleshooting section.

If you are able to provide access to onl…ubset of the databases, suggest alternatives. Will you provide letters of introduction so that students can use their local college or university libraries? Will you run searches for students, and if so, what are the parameters of that service? Encourage students to e-mail you for research assistance if they cannot access your databases, as you may be able to suggest other resources that will suffice.

Web site organization

Putting all this information in one place, o…istance learners page, is efficient and will be easy to update. Remember, however, that Web users are accustomed to following different paths to reach the same information; they will not necessarily start with the distance learners page. For example…istance learner looking for borrowing policies might start on the circulation Web page. Therefore, on the circulation page, creat…#x201C;circulation for distance learners” link to the circulation section of your distance learners page.

In those instances where policies are equal or very similar for on-campus and distance students, you may wish to say so, in addition to providin…eferring link. For example: “The online ILL form may be used by oncampus and distance students wit…urrent university ID.”

In creating multiple approaches to the same information, the challenges are to provide useful, but not excessive, redundancy and to avoid conflicting information. As policies change, comb the site to make sure information is updated throughout; if you hav…atabase-driven site, you need only to update the information once in the database. The creation o…istance learners page, with links to it throughout your Web site, is the easiest way to meet these challenges.

And although you want to avoid forcing distance students to telephone you for help or information, provide phone numbers just in case they want to.

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