Library Services | Feature

The Library Has Left the Building, But...

Even though digital resources are now front and center in higher ed, libraries must still work hard to integrate them into their schools' LMSes.

The Library Has Left the Building
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For anyone still clinging to notions of a library as a dusty repository of dead knowledge, consider this little nugget: On April 16, aka "library snapshot day" at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the library transferred a terabyte of data to users, and its Web site recorded visitors from 98 countries and 45 U.S. states and territories. Even though 16,201 people also entered the university's library facilities that same day, it's safe to say — for the most part — the library has left the building.

"It's not as if we don't have people coming [to the libraries], but the real meat of our connection…is over the network," said Tim McGeary, director of library and information technology at UNC Chapel Hill.

This story appears in the December 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

You won't get an argument about that from Rhonda Kitchens, an instructional design librarian at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF). Her library long ago breached the confines of its building to deliver services electronically, and most of her interactions with students now take place online. Yet Kitchens is frustrated that barriers still exist between learners and library resources. The library may have left the building, but it hasn't found its way everywhere it needs to go. And, in Kitchens' experience, the biggest barrier is the learning management system.

As she sees it, the majority of LMSes don't provide an intuitive, easy way to integrate library resources into course materials. To illustrate her point, Kitchens recalled text conversations she's had with students while staffing the school's Ask a Librarian service. "I'm trying to discuss with them things on their syllabus where the faculty member doesn't know how to bring the library into the actual course," she said.

Kitchens conceded that a savvy faculty member can build a library into a course by incorporating e-books or databases, or even by building live searches. "There's lots of really great things that do work even with the LMSes as they exist," she explained. "But it seems like, to some degree, as the LMSes progress, they've really left the library out of it."

As part of a contest earlier this year, weasked readers to tell us what higher ed IT issue had received insufficient coverage from the media. The winner was Rhonda Kitchens, an instructional design librarian at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota. Her entry, "The Library Has Left the Building," inspired this story — and won her an iPad 2 courtesy of Adobe.

A Need for Customization
Interviews with librarians, educators, and IT professionals at other institutions indicate that Kitchens' experiences aren't unique. While many schools have found ways — often ingenious — to integrate the library into their LMSes, the solutions are generally not part of the basic LMS feature set and require workarounds or customization. The upshot, in Kitchens' view, is a level of integration that is anything but optimal.

It's an issue that some LMS vendors recognize. "I've actually been a little bit surprised that there hasn't been traditionally more interplay between the library systems and the LMS," said Brian Whitmer, cofounder and chief learning officer of Instructure, whose open source Canvas LMS is used in more than 400 educational institutions nationwide. "It seems like kind of a no-doubter to me, but for whatever reason it hasn't happened very well. I'm hoping we can change it."

To connect users to the library, Canvas currently utilizes Learning Tools Interoperability. Developed by IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to setting standards in educational technology, LTI enables third-party services to launch from within an LMS framework "and to look and feel like part of the system," Whitmer said. Even so, the Canvas LTI connection still requires a separate login to access library materials. Instructure is now working to provide a more seamless experience so that library resources, such as copyrighted video, can be launched from within Canvas without a separate login.

LTI Offers Plug-and-Play Potential

Learning Tools Interoperability is a technology standard developed by IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to setting standards in educational technology. According to Fred Stielow, library dean of the American Public University System, LTI has now rendered most learning management systems "plug-and-play." As long as a library system is LTI compatible, he explained, it can easily be incorporated into the LMS, just like a class.

"Learning management systems themselves are a type of portal," Stielow said. "I'm not sure how long they're going to last. The only central element right now is the gradebook. Aside from that, it should all be plug-and-play. I think you're going to see more and more configuring to open source and the like."

This already appears to be happening. According to software consulting firm Capterra, the most popular LMS is the nonprofit Moodle, which is open source. LTI opens the door for potentially seamless library integration, as long as schools can overcome user-authentication issues. Concordia University in Montreal, for example, has a toolkit (including a catalog search widget) for adding library resources to a Moodle course site.

For its part, Blackboard defends its LMS's ability to integrate library resources seamlessly. "Many institutions we work with make their library system available within their LMS so that students have seamless pass-through authentications and access to closed resources such as journals," noted Deborah Everhart, product management and strategy director for Blackboard. "These integrations in some cases include e-reserve functionality for specific courses."

It's a claim backed by Blackboard clients such as The George Washington University (DC). According to Karim Boughida, the university's librarian for digital initiatives and content management, electronic resources such as assignments, reading lists, and bibliographies are inside Blackboard and link to the library's portal: "So students don't need to leave Blackboard to connect to the library Web site or the library search engine."

But Boughida acknowledged that this functionality required customization by the university that involved hooking directly to the content by parsing the metadata. While the level of customization was not heavy, said Boughida, it's not something that librarians or faculty could have undertaken on their own. In fact, he credited implementation of the workaround to the library's good relationship with the academic technology department. "When you have a really good internal partnership, you don't have to do much politics to get things done," he explained.

At SCF, which uses the Angel LMS (also owned by Blackboard), integration of library resources is more piecemeal. Kitchens encourages faculty members to utilize a library widget for Angel and "put it next to anything that says library," or beside anything that requests research materials based on the syllabus, a project, or an assignment. "But it's not built into the LMS, which is a shame," Kitchens said. "It should be."

For large schools with in-house development capabilities, integrating the library seamlessly with the LMS may be easier. UNC Chapel Hill, for example, developed an application several years ago that allows library resources to be embedded into the course pages of its Sakai LMS. The app also provides a proxy URL so off-campus students can access the library without any additional effort.

"I think it would be carrying on a poor stereotype that the library is slow changing if we didn't point out that this has actually been happening for quite a while," McGeary said.

UNC Chapel Hill also provides library services for its teaching hospital and other local hospitals. This enables health practitioners, such as medical students in residence, to access the library from within patients' electronic health records. "We went electronic almost completely as early as possible," said Jim Curtis, interim director of the Health Sciences Library at UNC Chapel Hill. "And when we did that, faculty in particular stopped coming to the library."

Want Library Integration? Build Your Own LMS

Brigham Young University (UT) solved the conundrum of integrating library resources into its learning management system when it built its own LMS, called Learning Suite. (See "Building a Do-It-Yourself LMS.") Although library integration wasn't the primary goal of the project, the flexibility offered by the homegrown system made such integration relatively easy.

To access the library from Learning Suite, a student simply clicks on a library resource tab "and it provides them with information about any of the documents that the faculty member has reserved from the library," explained Tom Mallory, the architect and lead engineer on the LMS project. Learning Suite does not yet have access to library guides for each course, although this is planned for a future release.

Non-LMS Solutions
Developing custom solutions that require alterations to the LMS can pose significant challenges for school libraries, though. For starters, it usually means involving central IT, which adds levels of oversight and complexity — and sometimes delay — to a project. Secondly, if the school ever switches LMS vendors, much of that work may have to be redone.

Bypassing all of that was one of the benefits of the myLibrary initiative at the Rochester Institute of Technology (NY), which contextually integrates library resources into specific courses. Developed by the library itself, the solution is simple for the very reason that it "doesn't involve coding inside the LMS," said Jonathan Jiras, technology services librarian at RIT.

Utilizing course numbers as its organizational foundation, myLibrary uses APIs to pull data from other sites, and tags data feeds coming from the registrar's office. "We are able to create a customized view within any course shell, showing the most appropriate library and contact information, course reserves, and library resources, by essentially parsing that course number," Jiras explained. For example, myLibrary would recognize that "HIST10101.2131" refers to a certain section of an introductory history class offered in a certain quarter. And if a specific library guide isn't available for that course, a default history guide will appear in its place, said Sue Mee, RIT's global education librarian.

Individual librarians, however, can author guides by using a vendor-supplied content-management system of library guides such as Springshare's LibGuides. "The librarian can easily update it without having to know how to write programs, or code, or anything like that," Mee said.

The secret to ensuring that the linked resources are relevant — not puffed with chaff the way Google search results often are — said Jiras, is "tagging by professional librarians. One of the things that librarians do and do well is categorize and classify information."

The cost to develop myLibrary was "minimal," Jiras said. He worked on the programming with the help of students earning $12 an hour, while Mee worked on the content selection. After about 100 hours of student work, "we had this thing polished nicely," Jiras recalled. And, Mee pointed out, "If we change learning management systems down the road, we can just pick up and keep using this, because it resides outside the LMS."

A Library Search Revolution

Web-scale searching is a major phenomenon that has revolutionized libraries in the last four or five years, according to Jonathan Jiras, technology services librarian at Rochester Institute of Technology (NY). "It used to be that you had various sources…various databases, and you had to search those one at a time," Jiras said. No longer, thanks to new search products such as Serials Solutions' Summon, EbscoNet, and WorldCat Local from OCLC that bring all these sources together.

What Summon has done is "absolute genius," noted Jiras. "They have taken the metadata from all of these databases and put them into a single database in such a way that it does not threaten the relationship that libraries have with the content providers. They still have to pay the publishers to get access to the individual articles. It's just that the data is now indexed in a single source."

Because RIT has subscriptions to these databases, students can link directly to the full texts of articles they find in their Summon searches. "In a way, it's like the Google of the library Web site," explained Sue Mee, RIT's global education librarian. "You're getting the entire library content within a single search box."

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