Virtual libraries, no longer a novelty, reflect the expectations of students in distance learning environments. The phenomenal growth of the Internet and public reliance on it as a primary information resource impacts library services to students learning at a distance. Major trends such as telecommuting and the changing profile of traditional college students have fueled the demand for distance education. Distance learning has become an attractive alternative especially for working adults, military servicepersons, and rural residents (Hanson, 2001). The proliferation of distance learning opportunities both within traditional universities, corporate training centers, virtual or online institutions, and other learning collaborations has had considerable implications for the provision of library services to distance students; indeed, it has been argued that distance learning without access to electronic information resources and services is simply impossible (Faulhaber, 1996). Concurrent with the emergence of the virtual university has been the rise of the virtual library. This essay defines the virtual library and situates it within the context of contemporary electronic learning and student expectations.
Definition of the Digital Library
In the broader historical sense the term virtual library became trendy in the mid-1990s, but never captured professional use in a formal sense to connote an operational definition as did the phrase digital library. Then, the terms digital library, electronic library, and virtual library often were used interchangeably. Critically, the term digital library arose and evolved within the broad library community beginning in the late 1960s. During that period, many physically-based academic libraries initiated innovative long-term projects to facilitate access to their continually expanding hard-copy collections. These programs integrated emerging information technologies with traditional printed materials, thus making libraries among the first integrated users of alternative media such as microforms, audiotapes and other sound recordings, and electronic files—all predecessors of today’s online commercial database systems and aggregated digitalized collections (Pacifici, 1997). Today, by most measures, the term digital library when used in this broader sense has won the day in terms of common use; perhaps, in part, because of the belief on the part of many information professionals that the word virtual was so vague. Virtual library, however, is increasingly the term of popular choice when one refers to the aggregated digital learning resources and librarian-assisted services that support the curricula offered by totally online or virtual universities. In residential institutions, the term off-campus library primarily refers to virtual access to resources and services or a satellite library location. Increasingly, librarians who support distance learning as found in more traditional and residential universities will also employ the term virtual library when referring to the amalgamation of resources and services that they provide their students at a distance even if that distance is across campus in a dormitory or a coffee bar.
While there are no limits on the size, content or relative value of data afforded students by a virtual library, its definition is always shaped by the pedagogical needs and expectations of its parent learning community. Today the term virtual library is nearly always associated with those library support services offered to students and faculty in the distance delivery and online learning environment. The expectations of students and faculty include access to librarians and to full text journal articles, books, and reference tools available from computer desktops anytime, anyplace.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Virtual Universities.: Post-secondary learning environments characterized by the delivery of courses and degree programs completely via the Internet without regard to time constraints or location. The term encompasses a broad range of entitles and activities including corporate training centers, individual institutional distance learning initiatives, non-profit and governmental education activities and state-side and multi-state higher learning collaborations.
RSS Feeds: To update content in frequently published blogs or podcasts, a “feed” contains either a summary of content from an associated web site or full text. RSS feeds are pulled into an aggregator for people to review the content in an automated format rather than manually accessing the content.
Podcasts: A digital media file, or a series of such files, distributed over the Internet using portable media players and personal computers for playback create a communication tool for tutorials, lectures, and other course material. Availability and storage of these files may reside in a virtual library for download.
Database systems: Aggregated collections of journal articles, trade publications, magazine, newspaper, proceedings, ebooks or book chapters that may include abstracts, citations, or full text. These systems allow for a variety of search strategies to locate literature to support research.
Full text: In the virtual library setting, the patron seeks primarily full text documents that can be downloaded to a local computer, printed, or emailed. The convenience of desktop research is an expectation and primary advantage provided by electronic libraries.
Distance Education: Instruction or learning in which the Learner and Faculty Mentor are physically separated from each other and use various forms of technology to communicate and complete a course of instruction.
Distance Education: Education in which the student and instructor are physically separated from each other and use various forms of technology to communicate and complete a course of instruction.
Virtual Libraries.: The aggregated digital learning resources and associated librarian-assisted services that support the curricula and degree programs of online, virtual universities.