The course is an online survey of church history. The professor is in Indiana. The theological school and its library are in Kentucky. The students are in Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, New York, and Korea. How is the seminary library serving this class?

This example is not hypothetical — it's from my own experience as an adjunct instructor. And as this situation becomes more common, the related questions become more complex. How does the library make a difference to students who never see the building? How do they access its resources? Do on-campus students always have an advantage over students halfway around the world?

Of all the challenges facing seminaries planning and administering online programs, the place of the library is one of the most difficult and crucial. Theological school libraries already serve as providers of an abundance of digital resources, both purchased and free, that confront researchers, and most librarians are able guides through a maze of information that far surpasses anything available to previous generations. But this task is becoming harder when students — and, in some cases, even faculty - never enter the building.

Librarians have long wrestled with a scarcity of resources and what many perceive as a lack of input into administrative decisions. But the increasing importance of online education has made some of the library's challenges even more acute. Librarian Duane Harbin notes that online education "tends to be viewed as a panacea to resolve issues of cost, access, and ‘time lost' for education."

Harbin is assistant dean for instructional technology and institutional research at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and, like many observers, he warns that online education doesn't automatically boost enrollment or increase revenues. "It actually resolves none of these issues — just changes them," he says. That's why "boards need to be presented with a careful, comprehensive business plan that has been submitted to serious critique."

A serious business plan will recognize that new educational models place even greater demands on libraries. What are the problematic issues for libraries in the age of online education? Here are three.

1. Lack of involvement in course design, particularly when programs are in the planning stage

While the Association of Theological Schools requires sufficient library resources for the introduction of any new academic program, it does not require that librarians be consulted in the overall design of these programs. Duane Harbin at Perkins would like to see boards advocating the following:

  • Involve librarians in planning for online programs from their inception. 
  • Provide libraries with sufficient resources, particularly with regard to legal issues related to providing resources online.
  • Include librarians in the instructional team at all stages, from curriculum planning through capstone assignments.
  • Include the library's public service staff in the school's online support team, because students and faculty will rely on librarians for online support whether they are officially included or not.
David Berger
Director of Library Services
Concordia Seminary

David Berger agrees, noting that ATS recommends that "professional library staff needs to be considered more seriously as a resource for providing ideas and content for course construction." Berger is director of library services at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and he believes that more librarian input into course content would lead to assignments that deliberately ask students to use the library to "identify, locate, procure, and evaluate relevant sources outside of the supplied content," thus helping students learn to use material not handed to them by their instructors.

Librarians can also prepare "self-contained" library instruction courses themselves — Berger's library is working on such a project in combination with Concordia's distance education staff — but "the key . . . is that such a course be required," he says. When concerns about time and cost are voiced by faculty, Berger says, "what seems often to be ignored is that the purpose of such a course, or instruction supplied within the course context, is to make the student's use of time more efficient, not to mention revealing the existence of materials that would otherwise remain ‘invisible.'"

Jennie Bartholomew, electronic services librarian at Luther Seminary, adds that she would like to see course syllabi offering complete citations of resources for students who want to pursue them later — a concern in face-to-face classes, to be sure, but an even more salient one at a distance.

2. Legal and technical issues related to e-resources

Duane Harbin at Perkins notes that for course materials that "would normally be accessed through libraries and computer labs, there are numerous hurdles, mostly legal but some technical. . . . There has to be a workable, legal strategy that will permit online students to fully enjoy the resources they would have as physically present students, and that will cost."

Not least among those costs, in terms of both time and money, is the amount of time spent dealing with copyright issues. It is no longer sufficient simply to put materials on a reserve shelf and post a notice above the photocopier regarding what constitutes fair use for copyright-protected materials. Instead, the copyright status of each item and the restrictions for posting it must be investigated. Harbin notes that "if the institution assumes the full burden of delivering copyright-vetted materials online, that represents a significant transfer of cost from the student to the institution." Catholic Theological Union (CTU), for example, has a staff member in academic services who is responsible, under supervision of the library director, for working with faculty on copyright issues, including checking both the Copyright Clearance Center and the library's licensed data-bases before taking the step of paying a fee to the copyright holder. (Like many schools, CTU maintains an annual license with the Copyright Clearance Center.) Some large university libraries maintain a full-time copyright officer, although this is beyond the financial ability of most seminaries.

A host of technical issues also confront the attempt to provide access to resources.

  • Distribution of books. Books must be mailed out and returned. Purchased collections of e-books and Google Books' collection of out-of-print materials can pick up some of the slack here, but not all, and the long-term results of the ongoing legal action against Google Books are uncertain. 
  • Distribution of articles. Full-text article databases are essential (and not cheap), but some articles do not appear in them, requiring additional staff time for scanning and e-mail (or copying and faxing). 
  • Staff hours. Librarians must be available for longer and more varied hours to provide reference to students in various time zones, and they may need software with text and video chat capabilities. (Skype has proved useful for some in this area.) 
  • Tech troubleshooting. Matthew Collins, a reference librarian in the Pitts Library at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, earned a fully online degree in library science. He notes that "tech support is an ongoing issue at the institutional end, since something always breaks. Student tech support is nearly impossible, since students are remote and most can only buy and use their computers, not troubleshoot or fix them." He adds, "It will take more time on the part of students, faculty, tech support, and librarians than anyone anticipates."

Perhaps the most perplexing facet of library service for distance education: knowing if students and faculty need help at all. The longstanding reluctance of people to approach the reference desk is multiplied when the reference desk is miles away. Melody Layton McMahon, the director of the library at CTU, says that her biggest worry is that the school's distance education students don't contact her enough. "We have a really good array of remotely available databases, and we instruct them when they are on campus, so maybe they are able to do a lot on their own. I hope."

Jennie Bartholomew at Luther Seminary notes that when online students do come to campus, "it is important for the library staff to meet them face to face," even if only briefly. "It makes a difference in outreach and support to know there are concerned staff (a.k.a. librarians) waiting to help with research."

Jennie Bartholomew
Electronic Services Librarian
Luther Seminary
(Photo by Trisha Burr)

3. Are some things impossible to reproduce?

The best catalog software in the world may suggest a number of related books on a topic, but some doubt that it can ever reproduce the serendipitous experience of browsing the shelves. What's more, the library catalog software at many theological schools — especially smaller ones — is far from "the best catalog software in the world."

Special collections librarians may digitize many of their collections — a number of ATLA libraries have participated in the Cooperative Digital Resources Initiative to do just that — but this is a time-consuming and expensive process that never covers all the materials in archives and special collections.

And even with the best electronic resources available, what if student don't have access to high-speed Internet connections? Harbin at Perkins cites a recent CNN report revealing that a third of U.S. households lack broadband access, primarily due to cost. CTU's McMahon is also concerned about interlibrary loan issues: "I used to hope that distance students could use their public libraries to do interlibrary loan and take some of the burden off us, but with the cuts in public library budgets, many are cutting back."

Charles Bellinger, theological librarian and associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School, believes that "on-campus students with access to a library will always be better off than distance students without such access. That should be clearly acknowledged. To say that distance students should have ‘equal' library resources would be a quixotic goal. Having ‘adequate' resources makes more sense."

With all these realities in mind, institutions may find themselves doing the best they can with what they have. But boards and administration need to be aware that the "best" may still be problematic. There is the perception, Harbin says, that online learning is easier. "It isn't," he says. "The doctrine of the Trinity is just as obscure and mysterious online as it is face-to-face. Studying or teaching it at home in your bathrobe and fuzzy slippers will not require any less study, reflection, or effort."

Resourcing online learning with integrity will not require any less study, reflection, or effort either.

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