The Virtual School Librarian: Providing Library Services for Distance Learners

Storytime: My 17-year-old brother is a student at an online high school.  (I think it’s TRECA but I’m not 100% sure of that.)  Sometime last spring, my mother described to me a challenge he’d had when working on an assignment in his history class.  The teacher had given him a question of causality: What were the reasons that a particular historical event had happened?  (I can’t remember what event in particular; I think it probably had to do with the start of a war.)  The teacher had instructed the students to “do some research” and “write a paper” about it.  The teacher didn’t provide suggested resources for the research or guidance on the research process.    Without this kind of guidance, my brother  spent hours sorting through Google results and ended up writing an unfocused paper that chronicled every possible cause he could find, rather than a cohesive paper making an argument for a particular cause or related set of causes. I said to my mother, “Well, doesn’t he have a school librarian that he could ask for help on assignments like that?”

“No,” she replied.  “They only just got a case worker for IEPs.”  As a (at the time, future) school librarian, this made me sad.  Since that conversation, I’ve been considering what it would look like for students like my brother to receive library services.

The North Carolina Virtual Public School, as I understand it, operates on a different model than TRECA does.  It is not a full-time academy, but rather provides opportunities for students across the state who might not otherwise be able to take certain classes.  Theoretically, students enrolled in NCVPS have access to school librarians at their home schools and would be able to ask for their assistance.  But, at least in my experience as a middle school librarian, collaboration between the distance teacher and the school librarian is rare and could present significant challenges (mostly due to time constraints; in a world of Skype and GoToMeeting, I think actually setting up the communication would be pretty simple).

For this reason, I think there need to be dedicated virtual school librarians, who work exclusively with teachers and students involved in distance learning.  As of 2009, “not one online high school [had] a school librarian position” (Darrow, 79).  Because of this, we don’t know exactly what such a position would look like.  University libraries, however, provide some promising models with e-learning librarians and distance  learning services.

Based on an informal survey of job descriptions for university librarians serving distance learning students and instructors, plus my own brainstorming based on guidelines like AASL’s Empowering Learners and NCDPI’s IMPACT, here are the services I imagine a VSL might provide:

  • collaboration with teachers, either synchronous or asynchronous, to create information literacy lessons embedded in their courses, to assist with the research process, or to provide lists of resources
  • consulting with students, to help them through the research process and help them identify relevant and reliable resources
  • providing/managing a virtual space where students could create & share their work (blogs? wikis? I’m not sure)
  • creating free-standing information literacy lessons for commonly-addressed issues
  • participating in classroom discussion fora to answer questions
  • holding office hours for virtual reference/unplanned consultations

I’m sure given time, I and the whole world of my librarian colleagues could come up with more.  There’s plenty of evidence that having a full-time dedicated school librarian improves student learning.  Isn’t it time we served the more than a million students enrolled in online courses?


Darrow, R. (2009.) School libraries are essential: Meeting the virtual access and collaboration needs of the 21st-century learner and teacher. Knowledge Quest, 37(5), 78-83.

3 responses on “The Virtual School Librarian: Providing Library Services for Distance Learners”

  1. Kimberly,

    I’m with you on this! I’ve been very interested in the concept of embedded librarianship for students in virtual learning settings. In my opinion, it’s those distance students who need the support and services of school librarians as much, if not more, than traditional students. I know that some colleges have been dabbling in this area but to my knowledge there are few instances of this type of library service delivery in the K-12 world.

    Buffy Hamilton, the Unquiet Librarian, has been curating information on embedded librarianship — you can check out her resources at: She also recently conducted an ALA Tech workshop on this same topic — her slides and suggested readings are available at:
    I know Buffy to be incredibly generous and helpful – I’m sure she would be receptive to any questions about her interest in this topic.

    Please note that “embedded librarianship” can take lots of forms and isn’t necessarily an online service delivery model. Please keep us posted as you explore this idea further!

  2. Within minutes of posting, I checked my aasl_forum messages and discovered that a new thread started yesterday on the role of school librarians in online classes. How timely is that?

  3. Thanks for the thoughts and the links to Buffy’s work, Kelly! Her embedded librarianship work is something I looked at a few months ago but she’s so prolific and my mind is so busy that I’d forgotten to revisit it. And now I’ve gone and poked in the AASL forum archives (I’ve gone web-only on the ALA mailing lists since they tend to be high-traffic), I see the discussion to which you refer.

    I feel as though traveling between two schools, I could benefit from using the same strategies a virtual school librarian would use during the times when I’m away from a school. Now the trick is to evangelize to teachers so they know the services are available, even when I’m at the other school…

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