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Check Out Online Learning at Your Local Library


After finally settling in after a recent move, I got my library card and now visit about once a week. It’s a small town library, but I find it pretty busy in the evenings with school-age children, teenagers, and adults alike.

Among the resources are librarians and volunteers who monitor computer stations, which are often full. During recent visits I’ve overheard conversations related to navigating web pages and downloading plug-ins. Last week it occurred to me that if I was enrolled in an online course and needed help, this might be a good place to find answers to a few questions.

Being an online learner can seem like a lonely existence. Even with all of the support your school provides, sometimes you just want to talk to someone in person – have them look at the screen with you and point you in the right direction.

Services and Assistance

Libraries maintain a wealth of resources both online and offline, and are staffed with professional librarians to help you find what you are looking for. Here are just a few of the services provided:

  • Computers with Internet access: As I mentioned above, computer stations are often available and loaded with basic software applications. You may even be able to reserve a computer for a specific time to conduct research and work on your course.
  • Wi-Fi access: If you have your own laptop or mobile device, many public libraries now provide free access to the Internet. Ask someone at the circulation desk for a login and password if required.
  • Reference librarians: Need help finding information related to your research topic? Don’t understand how the databases work? The reference desk librarians are experts in locating information.
  • Interlibrary loans: The items you need aren’t always available online or at your location. If there is something you need but can’t find, interlibrary loan may be an option. Your library will have guidelines on how to proceed once you’ve identified a specific title to request.
  • Online account access: Your library card often comes with extra services you can access outside of the library. Keep in mind that your school’s online library will likely have a greater selection of resources tailored specifically for college-level learners, but you might find some unique and helpful features closer to home, from database searches (e.g. EBSCO Host), to downloadable eBooks and “ask a librarian” options.
  • Educational and career programming: Check the calendar of events for a wide range of workshops, book clubs, information sessions, classes, and more. Libraries also often feature job search resources and have connections with other local government agencies, such as workforce centers and small business offices.
  • Study space: If some of your online classmates happen to live in your area, you may be able to find, or even reserve, a place to meet and work together on group projects. This setting is a nice alternative to a coffee shop or other, noisier environment.

What Not to Expect

Public libraries, like many education related organizations, have limited budgets. This means that while they do offer many services, there are some things they just can’t help with. Here’s a quick list of what you shouldn’t expect to find at the library:

  • Help with hardware and software troubleshooting on your own laptop or other device. You may find a kind librarian or volunteer who is familiar with the tools you are using, but there are too many brands and versions for them to be knowledgeable with everything. Technicians manning your school’s help line or the customer service contacts from the vendors where you made your purchases are good places to start with these types of issues.
  • Interpretation of course assignments. While librarians can help you with research topics and locating needed references, your instructor is the first line of assistance when you have any questions about the expectations of a specific assignment. Seek out clarification as soon as any questions arise. It may take time for your instructor to respond, especially if you encounter problems while studying at late hours.
  • Extended computer and Internet access. I don’t recommend that you rely on public computers to complete all of your online coursework, but the library is both a great alternate work spot when you need a change of venue, and a helpful back-up should your home Internet service go down. Become familiar with your library’s hours of operation including evenings and weekends, and realize that you’ll be sharing these computer resources and bandwidth with your neighbors.
  • A substitute for your school’s library. You may find the holdings of your local library are robust, but consider it a complement to, not a replacement for, your school library. The catalog and databases offered through your school’s system are focused on your needs as a college-level student, including academic journals and databases relevant to your area of study. Your instructors may also work closely with librarians to ensure you have access to the materials you need for your courses.

Get your card!

The key to opening many of these services is the library card, usually free to obtain, and billed by the American Library Association (ALA) as “the most important school supply of all.” September just happens to be Library Card Sign-up Month, sponsored by ALA, so it’s a great time to take the plunge.

This post provides a brief look at what is available in my county. What about your local library system? The National Center for Education Statistics provides an online search for public libraries. Find a location convenient to you and stop by to explore the resources.

Image credit, top: RTLibrary, Flickr, CC-BY

September 12th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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