During one weekend afternoon, I presented to classes held in Maryland, California, and Hawaii. Two days earlier, I had met with a class in Southfield, and four days later, I met with another class in Dearborn. After the Hawaii presentation finished, it took me only 15 minutes to return to my Michigan home. The out-of-state presentations were all conducted online, of course, and the Southfield and Dearborn presentations continued a long history of face-to-face library instruction at CMU’s Global Campus centers. Teaching online, traveling to remote centers, and flexible hours is standard in my role as Distance Librarian.
Before 2006, my career in academic libraries involved working on college campuses in physical libraries where I sat at physical reference desks and taught in physical classrooms. That all changed when I joined the CMU Libraries as an Off-Campus Librarian. I spent more time than ever before on the telephone and composing emails, the only methods available to me for communicating with students. There is no library or book collection at the Atlanta Metro center where I worked. In fact, the Park Library is the sole CMU library for over 30 Global Campus centers across North America. To this day, the only print books in my office are the APA and MLA Style manuals. My core responsibility as an academic librarian remained the same: teaching students how to discover, evaluate, and use information. Now I had to do it from an office building in northwest Atlanta with students located tens to hundreds of miles away.
But at least I had access to the Internet. Monica Craig, a Distance Librarian with CMU for 30 years until she retired in December 2018, was not always so fortunate. She recalls hauling print copies of Business Periodicals Index and Social Sciences Index to CMU centers around metro Detroit. It was also common for her to meet with CMU students at community colleges and public libraries in Dearborn, Southfield, and Troy to teach them how to find journal articles using those collections. There were no PDFs then, so students copied articles they located at those libraries or requested print copies from the Park Library.
The CMU Libraries has long strived to provide equal access to library resources and services for distance students. When Monica started in the Detroit position in 1988, CMU had two off-campus librarians in Mt. Pleasant and two based in Falls Church, Virginia. Librarians were later based in Kansas City, Richmond, and Atlanta, and they traveled to CMU centers across the country and in Canada and Mexico to teach distance students how to conduct library research. My initial “territory” included Georgia, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. As exciting as that sounds, and I would be lying if I said it was otherwise, there were challenges. I faced military security checkpoints; classroom technology issues; delayed flights and lost luggage; and GPS devices that led me astray, such as to a cow pasture in New Jersey; through a tobacco field in North Carolina; and over the wrong New York City bridge, twice. For several years, I hauled a video projector and boxes of print materials to each center I visited. Laptops were heavier then, too.
Successful services evolve to meet new challenges and trends, and so it has been for my role as Distance Librarian. Chat reference has all but replaced phone calls. Online subject guides replaced printouts, while course guides provide one-stop shopping of course-related library resources. Documents on Demand can get PDFs of print articles to students within 24-48 hours. Blackboard allows me to embed in online and face-to-face classes where I can track discussion boards and push information and resources to students. It also provides me with the ability to meet with classes in real-time via WebEx, which is how I can meet with three classes in different states in the same afternoon from my office in Troy. WebEx also makes it possible for students to schedule one-on-one research consultations regardless of their location.
While the how of the Distance Librarian position has seen significant changes over the past 13 years, the what of my role remains the same:
• promoting equal access to library services and resources for students at a distance or online; and
• teaching students how to discover, evaluate, and use information.
Just like any other reference and instruction librarian, I help students find the information they need to complete their assignments. I just go about it a bit differently.