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TL v56n2 The Embedded Librarian Service at MTSU
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 56 Number 2  



The Embedded Librarian Service at MTSU



Amy York
Distance Education and Outreach Librarian
Middle Tennessee State University

Presented as part of the program "Distance Education and Its Impact on the Academic Library."

Program Abstract: The tremendous growth in D.E. programs has required a shift of philosophy, practice, and resources.  This panel will discuss their success in initiating best practices.  peter Nerzak negotiated electronic resources for the RODP.  Jackie Dowdy explored the statistical relationships between D.E. and interlibrary loan. Amy York developed an information literacy program via WebCT.


The problem

It is increasingly important that libraries find effective ways to address the needs of online students. According to the Sloan Consortium, enrollment in online courses in the United States reached 2.35 million in 2004, up 18.2% from the year before. This exceeds the growth rate projected by the National Center for Education Statistics by more than ten times. The same Sloan Consortium survey finds that more than two-thirds of post-secondary schools offering face-to-face courses also offer online courses (Sloan Consortium 2005). The growth in online education is reflected at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), where enrollment in online classes rose 19.8% from 2005 to 2006 . In Spring 2006, over 3300 students took at least one online course, representing 16% of MTSU's total enrollment. This is up from 13% of the total enrollment in Spring 2005 (Office of Institutional Research 2005, 2006). While some of these online students are true “Distance” students who live outside of the geographic area and rarely if ever visit the campus, many are local students taking a mix of on-ground and online courses, occasionally enrolling in the latter type for convenience purposes. With more and more students electing not to come to campus, the library must figure out ways to actively go to them -- or else lose them forever.

A Solution

 At MTSU, we are addressing this issue by offering an “Embedded Librarian” for online courses. An Embedded Librarian is added to an online course as a teaching assistant, co-designer, or co-instructor. This service began at MTSU in Fall 2004 when the previous Distance Education Librarian offered to join two sections of a freshman English course taught by an instructor who was a frequent user of the library. She assisted the course by communicating with students via email or in course discussion boards as they worked on library and web-oriented research assignments. This pilot program was successful, and when I came in as the new Distance Education Librarian in Spring 2005, I offered my services to all MTSU instructors teaching online courses, including those who teach courses for the Regents Online Degree Program (RODP). An explanatory email was sent to 69 instructors, 9 of whom eventually added me as a TA to 16 course sections. Faculty interest in this service has risen steadily, resulting in my involvement in 21 courses for the Fall 2005 semester and 22 courses in Spring 2006. I have been added to both undergraduate and graduate courses in diverse fields such as Psychology, Nursing, English, Education, and Management. For a sample introductory email sent to instructors, see appendix A.

How It Works

MTSU and RODP use WebCT as their course management system. For regular MTSU courses, the instructor can add a TA himself or herself, while a co-instructor or co-designer must be added by a technical administrator. For RODP courses, a technical administrator must add a TA, co-instructor, or co-designer.

After being added to the course, I introduce myself to students via course email detailing the ways that I can help them. I invite students to ask questions throughout the semester by emailing me within the course, through my outside email, or by telephone. Some instructors also set up a special discussion board for library or research questions. I check each course daily to see if anyone has asked me a question. The majority of questions come immediately prior to research assignments or reading assignments that involve using library resources, so it is a good idea to be aware of these times in advance.

The Questions

In the introductory email that I send out to students, I list several possible ways that I can help them, all of which fall roughly into categories that could be called Research and Technical. Many of these questions also come from instructors. The following lists detail some of the actual question types that I have received and the groups who have asked them:


  • Can you help me find sources on [my topic]? (students, instructors)
  • Are these sources peer-reviewed? (students)
  • In what database can I search [this journal]? (students, instructors)
  • How can I find this specific article? (students, instructors)
  • How do I cite this source? (students)
  • How do I get this article/book that the library does not own? (students/instructors)
  • Do I have to cite this information, or is it considered common knowledge? (students)


  • This article link worked on campus, so why can't I/my students get it at home? (students, instructors)
  • How do I link directly to this article in my reference list? (students)
  • How do I create a link to this article in my course? (instructors)
  • How do I upload pictures/documents to the WebCT discussion board? (students)
  • What password do I use to access databases?

If someone asks a question that may apply to other students, I will usually email the answer to everyone in the class, including the instructor. If a discussion board has been created for library questions, I also post the information there. Still, it is not uncommon to receive the same question again many times throughout the semester.

The Outcome (so far)

Students have been overwhelmingly positive about the service. A survey of students in Spring 2005 found that 72% of respondents wanted a librarian to be present in future courses. Of the remaining respondents, 25% had “no opinion” and 3% said “no.” Another survey of students will be conducted at the end of the Spring 2006 semester.

The steady increase in instructors using the embedded librarian service since it was widely offered in Spring 2005 indicates that it is considered a useful service. Particularly notable is that many of the instructors from the original semester have continued to embed a librarian in the subsequent two semesters that it has been offered. A few instructors who have elected not to add me in later semesters do continue to refer students to me with research and other library-related questions. This increase in library services awareness among faculty members has been a positive outcome of the embedded librarian program.

The embedded librarian service has also led – in one case -- to instructional collaboration. An instructor of a freshman English course, after embedding me for one semester, asked me to develop a library instruction curriculum for her online courses to replace the face-to-face library instruction that her on-campus students receive. In response, I further modified and added on to an already modified version of Western Michigan University 's Searchpath tutorial that MTSU librarians had posted on the library website. In addition, I created companion quizzes and research assignments that were posted in the WebCT course.

Lessons Learned

As I write this, I have offered the embedded librarian service for three semesters. During that time, I have learned some valuable lessons about how to make my presence in online courses more relevant and useful.

  • Mark all library or research-related assignments on a calendar : I have found that it is a good idea to scan all of my courses at the beginning of the semester to pick out any assignments that may require my assistance. By doing this, I can be more prepared for what the week may hold.
  • Anticipate needs : This relates to the previous lesson. By having an awareness of when assignments are coming and what they consist of, I can proactively offer advice to students. For instance, if I know that students will need to track down a particular article for an upcoming case study, I can email them all instructions on how to find an article through the library portal. This eliminates the possibility of me not answering in time if a student waits until the last minute to complete the assignment.
  • Remind students of my existence : If there is a long period of time between research-oriented assignments, students in a particular course may need to be reminded that I am available. I will occasionally send out an email restating my purpose in the course.
  • Check once on the weekend and during breaks : Not surprisingly, online students, many of whom are working full-time jobs, do most of their school work on the weekends. They also work on their courses over holiday weekends and university breaks. Therefore, even if I am not scheduled to work during these times, I will try to check my courses at least once so that a student doesn't end up waiting a long time for an answer. If I know that I am going to be unable to check the courses for a certain amount of time, I inform students of this and refer them to the reference desk telephone.

I expect to learn more tricks as I offer this service in subsequent semesters. One project that I am working on is to collect copies of all of my instructive emails from this semester's classes, because it is likely that similar questions will resurface in the future. Instead of completely rewriting the answers, I can simply adapt them for the particular class.


The explosion in online education requires that libraries find creative and proactive ways to continue reaching students at their points of need. Library websites are useful for helping students who know what they are looking for, but online students need an equivalent of the reference desk when they are just getting started with research. Course management systems, such as WebCT and Blackboard, have become virtual universities. Librarians can create virtual reference desks by joining online courses. Existing virtual reference services such as email and chat reference are useful, but they are passive rather than proactive. Now that I think of it, being embedded in a course is rather different than sitting at the reference desk. Having the ability to see assignments and solicit questions is like walking around the reference area and tapping on students shoulders asking “Do you need help?” Only, it's not nearly as annoying.

 Appendix A. Email to Faculty

 Online Instructors,

Do you require your students to write research papers or use outside sources for discussion posts? Do your students need to access online articles that you assign? Are you tired of seeing students use low-quality websites as their only sources, or review articles rather than original research reports? I can help.

As the [your job title] at [your library], it is my job to make sure that online students receive the same services and assistance as on-campus students. If you choose, you may set me up in your WebCT shell as a teaching assistant so that I am on hand to assist students with library and research related issues in the course.

For more information, including a list of services available please see [your information page.  See for a model].

It's easy to add me to your course. Simply follow these instructions:

  1. In your WebCT shell, select Control Panel.
  2. At the Control Panel, select Manage Course.
  3. From Manage Course, look under Manage Teaching Assistants, and select Add or Import TAs.
  4. Type in my username, [your username], and click Add.
  5. Let me know you've added me.

 If there are any other ways I can assist you or your students, please feel free to contact me.


 [Your Name]

[Your Contact Info]



 Office of Institutional Research. 2005. Student Profiles Spring 2005. Murfreesboro, TN: Middle Tennessee State University.

Office of Institutional Research. 2006. Student Profiles Spring 2006.  Murfreesboro, TN: Middle Tennessee State University.

The Sloan Consortium. 2005. Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005.

Suggested Readings

Buehler, Marianne. “Where is the library in course management software?” Journal of Library Administration 41, no. 1/2 (2004) : 75-84.

Cox, Christopher. “Becoming part of the course: using Blackboard to extend one-shot library instruction.” College and Research Libraries News 63, no.1 (2002) : 11-13, 39.

George, Julie and Kari Martin. (2004). “Forging the library courseware link: Providing library support to students in an online classroom environment.” College and Research Libraries News 65, no. 10 (2004) : 594-597, 613.




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