Enhancing Online Student Learning with Academic Library Services

Student working on laptop outside at campus

I begin with a caveat. I am not an academic librarian. In fact, I have never worked in a library. However, as a former instructor of online courses, I have seen first-hand the power of introducing a librarian to a group of online students and how such exposure can lead to curiosity on a topic and deepen student learning. I have also heard online students praise library services as the most valuable support service they experienced during their programs. Furthermore, I watched while an institution changed the role of library services specialist from a one-person position with its own office including “stacks” of books and materials that could be sent to off-campus sites where instruction was held, to a role integrated within several information specialists throughout the campus’ libraries due to the growth of online programs and the ubiquitous nature of online learning.  

Consequently, when my colleague David Schejbal invited me to explore library services for today’s online students, I was eager to do so.  

At the same time, with Artificial Intelligence tools such as ChatGPT making their way onto the higher education landscape, and search engines such as Google, we wondered if online students still use library services provided by their institutions. If so, what is most popular? 

To lend insight into the matter of library services for today’s online students, I interviewed five librarians, each of whom serve online students, and interviewed five online instructors. Participants represented a range of public, private, not-for-profit, and for-profit institutions. Yet, the themes that emerged were strikingly similar and informative. The main takeaways are presented as five strategies for instructors to consider during the design—or revision phase—of course development.  

1. Become acquainted with your librarian 

If you have not yet done so, become acquainted with the librarian assigned to your discipline. Be open to a discussion of the course you teach or plan to teach. Include in the conversation a copy of a draft syllabus, required assignments, and any concerns you have about academic integrity. This could be quite a revealing discussion. As one librarian mentioned, “An assignment might ask the student to find information that is not yet available” and the librarian can help steer the assignment in a manageable way. Or for the case of one instructor who teaches a course that relies on films, the librarian can help identify links and instructions on how to stream rare resources.  

2. Provide the librarian access to the Learning Management System 

If you use a Learning Management System (LMS), provide the librarian access to it. Familiarity with the course’s LMS adds another dimension of assistance the librarian can provide. With that exposure, the librarian can suggest additional activities and anticipate student reference needs. Furthermore, instructor-librarian discussion may also lead to ways to reduce textbook costs through Open Educational Resources and related cooperative agreements. The more familiar the librarian is with the course, the better able they can serve you and your students.  

3. Incorporate interaction with library services within the course 

In addition to including a section on library services in the syllabus, consider ways for students to interact with library professionals early in the term. For example, one librarian mentioned that students are more likely to contact library professionals if the instructor includes points in the syllabus for outreach to the librarian. Another instructor mentioned that the library must be “easy to find…with a link to the library” from within the syllabus. Another instructor uses a scavenger hunt approach where students identify specific databases and at least three article types that will be relevant to the course – the librarian is available to assist. However, a particularly powerful way to help students get acquainted with the library staff as mentioned by instructors and librarians alike, is to invite a member of the library services team to a portion of your course session early on in the term. This can be during a synchronous session or, for asynchronous courses, through videos prepared by the library staff. In this way, students can have an eye-opening experience of what’s available to them weeks prior to the due date of a required paper or assignment. During the session, the librarian can “show and tell” the available services. This can be targeted to specific assignments if the librarian has been part of the team.  

4. Help your students experience the power of reference services  

Encourage your students to use the “live chat” feature offered by most academic libraries. Particularly effective is when a “patron” schedules a live session with the librarian through Zoom, Teams, or another tool that allows for audio and video “chat reference” interaction. Live chat can take various forms. As one librarian mentioned, “Zoom video conferencing with chat was a game changer.” For example, students can show the librarian any search challenges, and in turn, the librarian can help the student problem solve by demonstrating real-time options, such as access databases, interlibrary loan options, and other relevant resources. In this way, the librarian can teach using technology in a one-to-one situation as well as for students working on group projects.  

5. Allow the librarian to foster proper use of AI tools  

Librarians are becoming acquainted with ways that Artificial Intelligence tools such as ChatGPT can—with caution— be useful to students. As noted in recent essays, Gupta (2023) and Marqarella & Stobaugh (2023) say that while care must be taken to uphold academic integrity, such tools can facilitate learning, especially for students in need of basic assistance. The librarians interviewed mentioned this as well. Most academic librarians are not able to be staffed on an around-the-clock basis; however, if a widget can be a first responder for student inquiries, the librarian can follow-up with the students for more advanced questions. Librarians suggested that AI tools can be used to help students with brainstorming a topic and can help students get past writer’s block, however, these tools “should not be equated with authentic research.” One instructor mentioned that librarians have a long-standing role of helping students discern quality “from junk” and that role continues to be important. 


In short, consider that the skill sets students use for assignments that require library access are essential to their growth and development. As one instructor noted, “It’s no longer the case of if a student wants to learn about library services, they have to know how to do this…using the resources, links, and [available services], these are required skills.” Furthermore, as one librarian mentioned, “there has been a general shift in thinking…the library is not just about research but also about the process of learning more broadly.” Indeed, Carlson (2022) in his study of the future of academic libraries notes the evolving role of academic librarians—and libraries—as important components of an instructional team.  

By collaborating with librarians, instructors not only strengthen their courses, but also provide a gateway to student learning that can be built upon through a student’s years in higher education and beyond it.  

Dr. Faye L. Lesht is a research associate at Excelsior University. 


Carlson, S. (2022). The library of the future: How the heart of the campus is transforming. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Gupta, G. (2023, September). The AI advantage: Boosting student engagement in self-paced learning through AI. Faculty Focus.  

Margarella, E. and Stobaugh, R. (2023, October). The potential of AI and ChatGPT: Empowering learning and communication in the digital age. Faculty Focus.