Meet your learners where they are: virtualizing the school library

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Author: Brenda Boyer
Date: January-February 2016
From: Internet@Schools(Vol. 23, Issue 1)
Publisher: Information Today, Inc.
Document Type: Cover story
Length: 2,025 words
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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The rapid digital shift of the past decade has enabled exciting new modes of instruction and greater personalization in learning. School libraries are responding to these changes on the educational landscape by re-evaluating and transforming various facets of our practice in ways that better suit our learners' needs. Much of this transformation is to the physical library as our spaces are being reimagined as learning commons and makerspaces. Along with changes to physical library environments, the proliferation of BYOD (bring your own device), 1:1 (one-to-one) device programs, and blended and online learning opportunities for students makes it critical for school libraries to also meet the challenge of providing services, resources, and instruction in virtual environments.

Libraries need to meet learners where they are, and where they are is on their laptops, tablets, and phones. To remain relevant in the lives of our digitally connected students, school libraries must be both available and useful.

Developing an online library space is a huge task that demands pre-planning. School and stakeholder needs, possible digital platforms, free and purchased resources, learner workflow, tools for presenting instruction, and options for library services all require some thought, a little research, and a lot of planning. First and foremost, librarians must have a firm grasp on the perceptions and needs of school stakeholders.


Stakeholders are those with a vested interest in what we do. School board members, administrators and school principals, parents, community members, and, most important, the students we serve should have a voice in what our library environments (both physical and digital) look like and how they work. Identifying your library's chief stakeholders is the first step in planning your online space. Decide what kind of information you need to learn and plan how to gather this specific information from these people. What questions will you ask and why? Will you gather this information via a formal survey, personal interviews, or both?

Keep in mind that the ultimate goal in learning this information is to establish and maintain a vibrant online environment and to discover what shifts in resources, instruction, and services need to be made to hit this target. Along the way, librarians will also uncover perceptions about the library and existing services (and about themselves). Gathering this data is crucial in order to develop and articulate justifications to administration for any costs for platforms, research, and development time or for digital resources and tools needed.

To this end, questions should touch upon what about the library is working for stakeholders, what is not, and what more they want. (See the sidebar for questions to ask.) Tools for creating quick and easy surveys include Straw Poll, Poll Everywhere, SurveyMonkey, Yarp, Survs, and SurveyMapper.

Once you know what your learning community wants, it's time to consider what you, the library staff, want to accomplish with the virtual space. Start with the school's mission statement and consider how the library currently serves it. Then, contemplate how it could further do so online. Explore the best practices of other school libraries' digital spaces. Discover what resources other schools include (both subscription and free); what services are offered (connecting with librarians, interlibrary loans, one-on-one research help, etc.); and where, how, and what kind of information fluency instruction is embedded in these online environments. A great place to start when exploring options and collecting ideas is the LibGuides Community. Develop a wish list of branding ideas, features, layouts, resources, proximity needs (i.e., what needs to go next to what) and instruction that you would like to replicate in your school's virtual library.


Develop a brief justification to your principal, board, and other administrators explaining why this shift needs to occur to better serve your community of learners and how you envision the digital library space integrating with the larger learning environment. Be creative! Show off your tech prowess by developing a digital version to share back to your learning community. This justification would be particularly powerful if it included direct quotes or video footage of your colleagues, and especially students, sharing their vision of the online library environment.


When you know what is desired in your online space, it's time to find the platform that is the right fit for your school. Perhaps your school's website will be able to accommodate your vision. Perhaps you just need a dashboard space such as Symbaloo or Pearltrees or maybe something robust such as LiveBinders, Wikispaces, or LibGuides. Each of the platforms mentioned here has been successfully adopted for online school library spaces.

Budget is certainly a major consideration in this decision, but, more importantly the platform must be able to do what your learning community needs. For example, if your students and teachers desire video tutorials, your platform obviously needs to be robust enough to handle embedded media. If your virtual library needs to be present within the school's LMS (learning management system, e.g., Moodle, Blackboard, Schoology, Canvas, etc., which is used for blended and online learning), you will need a platform that can itself become embedded within that digital environment. Or maybe your community is best served by having the library hold a course space within this system.

Keep in mind that easy accessibility is the key to use. If the library is too hard to find or is too deep behind a firewall, then usage and usefulness are affected. Most libraries, such as my own, opt to be fully accessible from the open web as well as from within the school's LMS. Wherever the library resides, the school's brand should be obvious. Remember, this space is the library. The energy and marketing of the digital space should match (or exceed) those of the physical space. The connection between the two parts of the library should feel symbiotic and natural to learners.


When developing the online library, usability and workflow of the user for determining what goes where and what needs to appear next to what. For example, our teachers want certain subscription databases to be the first place our students go for inquiry/research in their subjects. To meet this desire, these resources are featured prominently on our library site (LibGuides), usually in upper left and center locations. Next to these will be resources from the free web (videos and websites) that the teacher and librarian have co-curated. We use vendor-generated widgets on these pages, ensuring that our students do not need to drill down to search our databases. We have dubbed these widgets "search apps" (rather than "databases") in our school, since that is the function they serve for our students. This moniker makes more sense to users and brings greater relevance to the items we include on the guides. Nearby and very visible are any assignment documents learners may need to use, as well as any instructional tutorials they may require to get the job done. The goal is to provide one location to get what's needed; everything must be available within two clicks.


There are many easy-to-use tools to create and store instruction as RLOs (reusable learning objects). Whether a video is created with Animoto, QuickTime, Screencast-O-Matic, eduCanon, Zaption, PowerPoint, Keynote, or any of the vast array of video and presentation tools, or a step-by-step lesson is made using tools such as Learnist, MentorMob (LessonPaths), Tildee, Edynco, or ThingLink, you can now put instruction anywhere for just-in-time learning. You can place tutorials on using subscription resources near these assets in the digital space, ensuring that students will not be stymied by forgetting how to search them. Reminders and checklists for evaluating resources for objectivity can appear next to search engines.

Tips for selecting a great book to read might appear next to the library's digital catalog. Infographics that show step-by-step instructions on how to read an academic journal article or how to export citations can be near database search apps. You can use tools such as Google Voice (in addition to traditional email) as a means for learners to reach out to and connect with their librarian for just-in-time live assistance Presenting various types of instruction and paths to service helps to meet different learner needs, reinforces the necessity of embedded librarianship in online learning, and also brings transparency to our practice. In doing so, we scale our practice and increase our own instructional capital as well as our online social presence. Offering resources mixed with instructional organizers and tools increases the likelihood of their becoming part of learners' research routines and workflow, hopefully creating habits that will transfer to other digital college and public libraries.


Planning, designing, and developing an online school library space is a big job--and one that never ends. To remain relevant, digital libraries must be routinely updated. New information resources and digital tools that our teachers and learners need appear every day. Keeping up with the continual flow is easier when librarians have established a trusted PLN (professional learning network) that includes other professionals, vendors, blogs, newsfeeds, listservs, and more to stay informed. Without question, Twitter has become a chief platform for many school librarians' PLNs. Hashtag chats occurring once a month yield useful resources, instructional ideas, and the expertise of colleagues.

School librarians must rethink their own existing workflows for curating resources, updating online spaces, and designing instruction. Sustaining a digital environment should not feel like "one more thing," but rather is just another shift in how we do business as librarians. We need to identify what old tasks and procedures we can abandon as we grow our digital library practice. Finally, we need to determine how we will continue to monitor and respond to the ever-changing needs of our students as they increasingly move deeper into online learning environments.


What is your library's mission statement?

What are your professional goals?

How well do you believe you are meeting these priorities?

How would shifting some library services, resources, and instruction to the online environment help you meet these various objectives?

Where does your online library reside now?

Does that platform suit your growing needs? (i.e., are you able to do everything there you'd like to in terms of media, resources, instruction, and tools you can embed there?) Will it stay there and grow, or migrate to a new platform?


What role do the current physical/online library spaces and resources play in the following:

* your school day

* your research/inquiry projects

* your professional development, professional planning, and personal growth (i.e., reading/independent learning)

What would you like to have access to online that you currently do not have? (e.g., certain resources, digital tools, instructional tutorials, etc.)

What would you like your students to have access to online? (e.g., resources, digital tools, instructional tutorials, etc.)

What would you like to be able to do online as part of your research/school work (e.g., create documents, presentations, graphic organizers, mind maps, source evaluation, or documentation or take notes/annotate within sources, etc.).

In what ways could the library better facilitate your learning/teaching capabilities?


Budget: What budget do you have to work with currently? Would your funding need to change to increase your library's online presence? How might an improved online library space with digital resources, embedded instruction, etc., improve your school's ROI? (This is a critical point that you should consider adding to your justification to administrators.)

Time: How do you currently manage your online library space? How much time do you (or might you) spend designing the space, curating resources, embedding instruction, and interacting with learners there?

Sustainability: If this is a big change for you, how might you need to adapt your workday and/or off-hours work time? How will you keep up? What resources (print, online, etc.) could you possibly leverage to help you stay on top of your professional duties?







Brenda Boyer, Ph.D., is a high school librarian and chair of information and technology resources for the Kutztown (Pa.) Area School District. Her email address is

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A440057567