Why Today’s Online Librarians Must Be Subject-Matter Experts

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Subject-matter experts are critical to the development and delivery of effective curriculum and instruction, and ultimately to student learning. Subject-matter expertise is as necessary for those in the field of information literacy, as it is for faculty, whether they be in accounting, science, history, psychology, or another academic field.

What makes information literacy unique to many other fields of study is that it cuts across the curriculum. Librarians, who are the subject-matter experts relative to information literacy, must teach the process of identifying information, researching sources, effectively using information for a particular purpose, and using the information legally and ethically. Librarians must be able to apply their knowledge and skills across a broad span of program and course content, and at the same time differentiate instruction to meet the needs of individual students with specific assignments, and instructor requirements. Today’s librarians are on the front lines of creating and delivering both personalized and scalable learning solutions.

The Challenge of the Common Ground

Student learning and success is the common ground shared by educational institutions. The challenge of the common ground may be finding ways to get there. It could be easy to lose sight of the common ground when various perspectives on the needs of students compete for attention, solutions seem in conflict, priorities are not identified, and tough choices must be made. But ultimately, the solution to student success will involve inclusion of, and collaboration between, those who bring complementary sets of knowledge and skills.

A library team is a part of this. The expertise of today’s librarians must be interwoven throughout a university. It cannot be minimized, dismissed, or sit outside the academic structure of curriculum and instructional delivery and make its maximum contribution to student learning. Methods of supporting students must be varied to respond to the individual needs of learners. Ideally, library and other academic teams work together in responding to learner demands, particularly in the development of curriculum and delivery of instruction, assessment of effectiveness, and methods for continuous improvement.

Personalized and Scalable Solutions

Students first requested it, then they expected it, but now they seem to demand it. They want just-in-time learning supports that are personalized. Educational institutions, and those who seek to serve students, must both personalize their interventions, and scale them to reach as many learners as possible. For a team of librarians this means integrating technology into their day-to-day practices.

Personalized Solutions

The reference desk may be the most familiar form of personalized library support. At a brick-and-mortar campus students stop by the front desk in the library to ask questions, find resources, and get help with any number of topics related to their assignments. The same is true in an online environment. Digital Services Librarians are available by email, chat, and phone to communicate one-on-one with learners. Each contact is specific to a student, course, and assignment. “Getting in the weeds” requires the expertise of a librarian who can apply information literacy skills to a particular situation and across what may seem like an infinite number of subjects.

Scalable Solutions

The best scalable solution feels personalized. The difference is that the scalable solution is not one that is unique to a particular student. Rather, it is a common experience shared by many learners, each of whom wants to find what s/he needs when s/he needs it -- even if that is at 3 am.

  • Curriculum-embedded supports include those that are customized to specific assignments. For example, students may be writing a paper in which they must compare and contrast varying views on climate change. Embedded into the description of the assignment is a link to a video that walks learners through the steps to finding scholarly resources written by credible experts in the area of climate change.

  • Customized tutorials that reinforce information literacy skills could also be particular to a course, program of study, or even a university. Some student needs seem universal and cut across content areas. For example, students can benefit from an online tutorial that demonstrates how to determine if a source is credible, how to identify the main points, how to cite it, and how to ethically use it.

  • Additional just-in-time tools include live webinars that can be saved for viewing when it is most convenient to a student, library guides designed for particular content areas, content repositories that including query capabilities for answers to frequently asked questions, and universal search boxes that allow students to simultaneously search for resources across databases.

The development of each of these tools requires the knowledge and skills of a subject matter expert, the librarian. It also places expectations on librarians to be continuous learners who develop the skills necessary to use the latest technology in their day-to-day activities. Combining the subject-matter expertise of the librarian with technology allows for effective solutions to be scaled. A small team of librarians can have a significant impact on large numbers of students if they use tools that can be accessed when, where, and how students need them.


Written by Mindy Sloan, Associate Vice President of Student Success for Bridgepoint Education.


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