Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: University Libraries and Digital Learning Environments

Sylvie Lafortune reviews a collection of essays that examine the transformation of academic libraries as they become part of digital learning environments.

This book examines how academic libraries are realigning themselves with the university of the 21st century, which is increasingly becoming a digital learning environment. The expectations of the Google generation, the interdependence of teaching and research, and the changing roles of library staff  and technology all play a fundamental part in this environment–and to lead the discussions in this book, the editors have called on 18 experts and practitioners. The result is 16 chapters that provide a range of viewpoints on how academic libraries will participate in and support digital learning environments.

 In their introduction, the editors emphasise that they have chosen to use word clouds (using Wordle) for the cover of the entire book as well as for each chapter to demonstrate ‘in a very graphic way the breadth and depth of the content’. This is one of the initial features many readers will notice about this book and, based on my reading experience, I think it is effective in helping the reader focus on patterns that have emerged during the creation of the work.


In Chapter 1, ‘Here today and here tomorrow', Sue McKnight focuses on the resilience and adaptability of libraries as they become the physical and virtual heart of their campuses. However, she argues that, to succeed, the ‘virtual library’ must be an easy-to-use space which complements the physical space. Furthermore, libraries must remain focused on their role in a world where customers want to work, study and socialise. In this context, librarians will more likely collaborate with academics, student support professionals and e-learning technologists who are creating and working in online learning spaces. The greatest challenge for libraries, according to McKnight, is to ‘enable’ their users to access, consume and remix information they manage wherever and whenever they wish.

Chapter 2, provocatively entitled ’It’s All About Social Media, Stupid!’ by Peter Godwin, looks at the intersection of libraries and Web 2.0. Much has been written about this intersection, but some of his considerations deserve to be highlighted. On the one hand, it is important to realise that social media do not have a universal appeal! On the other hand, the generational gap relating to technology is closing and, more importantly, research indicates a positive correlation between literacy and engagement with social media. Godwin also asks a more fundamental question: ‘Do users actually want to communicate with librarians?’ He also provides an important discussion of social media metrics and how complex it can be to form accurate measurements simply because they are often more qualitative than quantitative.

Chapter 3, Jacqui Weetman Dacosta’s ‘Information Literacy in the Digital Environment’ addresses the impact of technology on teaching information literacy (IL) skills. Much is being developed, from online tutorials, to teaching assessment tools such as SAILS (Standard Assessment of Information Literacy Skills), to Web guides and training modules for librarians such as Lollipop and Sir Learnalot. Digital  initiatives are used in the hope of engaging students and also of addressing more effectively diverse learning styles. However, Dacosta raises two important issues:

  1. as of yet, there is no evidence that IL is more effective within a virtual space, and;
  2. teaching students to formulate search strategies, develop keywords and evaluate sources remains at the heart of IL, not matter what the format of the instruction.

Sheila Corrall takes a look at the skillset needed by academic librarians in contemporary digital learning environments in Chapter 4 ‘Professional Education for a Digital World’. Many library schools have moved from the traditional library science programme to broader information management programmes. Do the latter really provide the multi-faceted skillset needed for the new role of ‘data liaison’? According to Corrall’s analysis of numerous reports, there is no consensus as to what programmes best prepare professionals for the digital learning environment. The US leads the way in terms of specialised courses in academic librarianship; but, according to many, there is still an important gap in specialist education for information literacy and data curation.

In Chapter 5, ‘The Library Chameleon: Physical Space’, Liz Waller gives us a tour of the emerging learning spaces in academic libraries. These spaces are being transformed in ‘student centered’ environments, complete with modular furniture, ‘service pods’, roving multi-skilled staff, wireless and fixed personal computers and coffee shops. There is a growing body of work on ‘learning space design’ and for anyone directly involved in building refurbishment, it is quite fascinating to see how it affects all areas in libraries, from service to collections to staff.  Equally fascinating is to witness how occupancy increases! However, this leads to another important area of space planning which is evaluation. To date, Waller notes that evaluation tends to focus on justification of expenditure and student satisfaction. But the fundamental question is: do new learning spaces enhance learning? The author does provide an overview of studies which identify and review tools, methods and frameworks for evaluation mechanisms.

Rachel Geeson provides an overview of virtual advice services although she focuses mainly on what is widely known as ‘chat services’. Chapter 6, ‘Virtual Advice Services’, starts off with a brief outline of the results of a survey the author conducted in 2009. This leads to a discussion of chat software (commercial and freeware) and service models which vary widely. They include staffing, set-up, opening times and usage figures. Geeson notes that staffing issues are what is common to all institutions. However, we must consider that, from the user’s perspective, chat services are not a novelty but a significant service option. Finally, it appears that successful chat services depend primarily on promotion and strategic entry points. There are some pitfalls to this service, for example, that it lacks personal identity and metrics. Looking forward, Geeson suggests that libraries need to think about delivering mobile-friendly information on the Web.

In Chapter 7, ‘The Reading E-volution’, Jill Beard and Penny Dale dig deeper into the role of the library in academic literacy and student success. Their point of departure is asking ‘to what extent learning in a largely digital environment can be considered “reading”?’ Up until now, there has been little research on reading strategies and academic skills development in a digital environment. Although no definite solution can be found here, the chapter does cover three areas which libraries must examine: partnerships; the role of the student and peer-assisted support, and; the overarching role of technology. One area which can be improved is the traditional reading list. Indeed, reading lists are the foundation of the ‘reading for a degree’ concept by which faculty staff provide core material and their students, through learning activities based on the material provided, progress through their studies until they obtain their degree. But this method is static and is no longer effective in a digital environment. The authors discuss emerging initiatives such as using digital tools to help open up reading lists to students. These tactics range from embedding reading lists in virtual learning environment software with links directly to the corresponding content, to providing the ability for students to use social bookmarking and networking tools to share and comment on the resources and add their reflections.

Chapter 8, Alma Swan’s ‘Institutional Repositories – Now and Next’ covers what repositories are, what they achieve, how they have evolved in the past decade and what the current challenges are to move them forward. Unfortunately, since digital repository initiatives are progressing rather slowly, the author could not add very much to the existing body of knowledge. Among other issues, copyright and interoperability remain the major roadblocks and the author rightly notes that without international consensus among all stakeholders, progress may be very slow indeed. Swan attempts to link repositories and the scholarly enquiry process by drawing attention to the significant amount of digital data that is currently being produced in all disciplines. Undoubtedly, repositories can play an important role in data storage, curation and access but as she herself states ‘these things are under intense study and discussion’ – and nowhere near being resolved.

Chapter 9, ‘Making the Repository Count: Lessons from Successful Implementation’ by Matt Holland and Tim Denning examines why implementing – and I may add, maintaining –  a repository remains a challenge for most universities. Two short case studies provide the background for a discussion which could have easily been integrated with the previous chapter.

Mellissa Terras, Claire Warwick and Claire Ross, in Chapter 10, ‘Building Useful Virtual Research Environments: The Need for User-led Design’ use an interesting case study (VERA Project) to describe an emerging technology. Virtual Research Environments (VREs) are databases with customised digital tools and services designed to enhance the work of scholars. The chapter offers one important message: the need for a user-driven design when undertaking VRE development; and the authors even provide a set of guiding principles to help potential developers of these projects. But isn’t it now widely recognised that the success of any new digital application is directly related to user needs and feedback? Nonetheless, the guidelines are clear and useful and could be applied to other contexts! One last point is the argument for the involvement of libraries in VRE development which is ‘becoming more central’: the authors do caution that currently, most librarians may not be sufficiently skilled to be fully integrated into these projects.

I must admit that I struggled with the dilemma in Chapter 11, Jane Russ’s ‘The HE and FE Digital Dilemma’! Understandably, the issues surrounding support for the often very different needs of students of Higher Education institutions and Further Education programmes are real and practical. However, this has been the case for decades now. What this chapter is not always clear about is the real solutions that virtual learning environments bring to this problem. There is much ‘back and forth’ in terms of advantages and disadvantages of digital support and potential challenges from the students’ or the libraries’ perspectives. I think what we take away from this contribution is that VLEs have had a very positive impact in providing support for students in HE/FE collaborative programmes (enhanced access to information, flexible learning opportunities, greater ownership of studies). But there is room for improvement! The author calls for a stronger collaboration between HE/FE institutions for better integration and delivery of learning resources. The primary dilemma of whether the VLEs should be separate or combined remains unresolved.

In Chapter 12, ‘Online Support Offered to International Students by UK University Libraries – What are we doing, and why are we doing it?’, Frank Trew focuses not only on current initiatives being developed to support international students but also asks why such initiatives are taking place. He admits that there are no definite answers to these questions, but does refer to strong recruitment and retention mandates of universities, in the UK and  elsewhere. A few important points should be emphasised from Trew’s work. Firstly, there are many digital resources and tools available for international students, but library support is patchy and rarely makes use of VLEs. The author includes a few observations that librarians should be aware of, namely that in addition to the well documented language  and cultural problems, international students may be susceptible to ‘learning shock’, defined as differences in learning and teaching styles as well as in measures of success (p. 188). This may justify employing ‘academic literacy’ approach, rather than an ‘information literacy’ approach when working with international students. Furthermore, we should be careful not to fall in the ‘deficit model’ trap! The author discusses a study which found few differences in the information seeking behaviours of international and ‘local’ American students. However, plagiarism remains one area where local and international students differ significantly. Trew concludes by stating that there is as yet no consensus, in terms of pedagogy, on what actual help international students need: should it be exclusive or inclusive support?

In Chapter 13, ‘Library Performance Measurement in the Digital Age’, Angela Conyers and Philip Payne offer some insight into why and how libraries are re-examining their traditional performance measures. Undoubtedly, the evolving digital landscape is driving change in how libraries collect and analyse statistics. They must now measure availability, use and impact of print and e-resources as well as emerging services delivered through technology. Customer satisfaction is also driving performance measurement and so we are witnessing the use of qualitative as well as quantitative methodologies. I had not realised how this whole field appears to be an area of innovation for libraries as the authors discuss action research methodology, use of stories or narratives, use of ‘star ratings’ through interaction with users and possibly even ROI (Return on Investment) models. The authors end their contribution by reminding us that no matter which methodology is used, the data must be systematically analysed and reviewed before being presented.

Emma Crowley’s and Chris Spencer’s (Chapter 14) ‘Library Resources: Procurement, Innovation and Exploitation in a Digital World’ examines the impact of the digital environment on the increasingly complex activities of purchasing. This area of activity has changed dramatically over the past two decades as the amount and range of digital content have increased exponentially. From licence negotiation to ‘patron selection plans’, to marketing and usage analysis, to resource discovery tools and user feedback, librarians and suppliers are developing systems and services to meet the expectations of today’s users. These transformations are not without problems. Library staff need to adapt and develop new skills and library management systems are incapable of fully supporting the acquisition and exploitation of digital content so libraries are being creative and using a combination of local solutions, commercial software and provider applications. Moreover, preservation of content in perpetual usable formats are a primary concern. One last notable point is that most library environments ‘remain hybrid, due to higher costs of digital materials, small society print titles and legacy print’. (p. 234)

In Chapter 15, ‘Continuing Professional Development and Workplace Learning’, Sheila Corrall looks at what is now available to librarians who need continually to update their skills in the digital learning environment. In recent years, academic libraries have seen the emergence of micro-specialties in areas such as information systems, digital content services, institutional repositories, subject-specific liaison roles and information literacy. In addition, traditional work boundaries have become blurred giving  rise to ‘blended’ librarians. Corrall provides a detailed list of both external and internal activities that librarians can engage in to pursue professional development, from study visits, summer courses and work shadowing to joining task forces, reading professional literature to job rotation. Increasingly, pedagogical abilities to perform effectively in digital environments is a requirement of academic librarians. The author concludes by highlighting that there is evidence that academic librarians are progressing towards professional doctorates in the US. This may be an indication that there is a strong movement towards advancing university library practice.

Chapter 16, ‘Librarians as Midwives of Change in Scholarly Communication’ by David Ball is a short essay arguing that we are currently in the middle of a third information and communications technology revolution! A valuable analysis of the transformation currently taking place in the information value chain is included as well as a brief discussion of the costs of each link in the chain with more emphasis on the cost of academic journal publishing. Indisputably, academic publishers still hold most of the cards in digital content negotiations, but the rest of the stakeholders are slowly and surely working their way toward reclaiming all of the links in the information chain. According to Ball, the revolution has started, but there are ‘many practical, cultural and financial impediments’. The author predicts that librarians will act as midwives in delivering a new age of scholarly communication. The intended metaphor is ambiguous, depending on one's perception of midwives; if one interprets the metaphor as relegating librarians to behind-the-scenes work again, it would seem to clash with how librarianship is seen to be evolving by most of the other authors in this book. Alternatively, one may read the intent as placing librarians at the forefront of the information revolution due to their focused expertise and constant attention, which offers a more positive interpretation.


 I do have mixed feelings about this book: on the one hand, most of the contributions provided me with an opportunity to do some benchmarking against my own experience. For example, I now realise that most academic libraries I have visited in recent years are either at a planning or implementation stage of new services and spaces described in this work. And this confirms that academic libraries are resilient and adaptable! However, as Sheila Corrall indicates in her chapter on professional development, to move forward, our profession needs actively to pursue critical reflection and reflective writing. Unfortunately, I did not see enough deep thinking and reflective writing in this collected work. What I do take away is that in digital learning environments, librarians must update their skills in pedagogy and technology and focus on partnerships with those directly involved in teaching and research in their institutions

Author Details

Sylvie Lafortune
Government Information and Data Librarian
Laurentian University

Email: slafortune@laurentian.ca
Web site: http://www.laurentian.ca/library/

Sylvie Lafortune is an Associate Librarian at Laurentian University of Sudbury, one of the two bilingual universities in Canada. Her main area of responsibility is Government Information, Data and GIS. She is currently Chair of the Department of Library and Archives at her institution. For the past few years, she has enjoyed being the faculty advisor for the World University Service of Canada Local Committee at Laurentian.