Winner’s story: Fred Stielow

Routledge Distance Learning Librarianship Award

“The Routledge Award engages in the evolution from distance into a new breed of online librarian.”

Picture of Frederick Stielow

My 2014 selection for the Routledge Distance Librarian Award signals significant change in the nature of distance librarianship. In the near past, distance services were mere subsets of a main university library. Activities were modeled to the centrality and research requirements of a fixed campus.

The Web disrupts that model.  Search engines and a tide of freely available resources intervene on the research scene.  Traditions from the quadrangle give way to online courses and new forms of instruction.

I appeared on this evolving stage in 2005 at the American Public University System. Its operations had begun in the early 1990s as part of the first wave of Web-based higher education.  As befits the fiscal oversight with a for-profit launch, the school initially managed with barebones information operations. APUS, however, found it needed a functioning library in its quest for regional accreditation – the sine qua non for an American university.

Thanks to a supportive president and new provost, my charge was to build a virtual library to meet the challenge. Beginning with a staff of one librarian and a part-time staff member, we faced a five-month window to bring order in a revolutionary setting bereft of a physical campus. Rather than adjunct, virtual collections were to form APUS’ main library. We would not own, but have to arrange access and meet accreditation standards through inchoate technologies by licensing from an array of remote vendors and publishers. Limited hours and travel requirement would no longer suffice. Services would need to accommodate round-the-clock Internet access to more than 100 countries.

The library also entrepreneurially firmed in hope of the future. I actively embraced and promoted information literacy into one of the school’s educational objectives for accreditation. The library asserted a role as comptroller for copyright and ADA/508 compliance. We infiltrated library training into both the required undergraduate introduction and faculty training courses.

Successful accreditation only whetted the appetite for further reinvention. Operations inverted from the primacy of research to emphasize classroom engagement. Within eight years, the library would create an electronic bookstore and e-press. A studied campaign helped expand to an elite corps of twenty-three librarians. Assigned by department as subject specialists, they proactively worked with faculty to cover the curriculum with electronic course guides. Those tools knocked down the walls. They featured vetted resources from the Open Web along with peer-reviewed holdings from the library and acted as both research launching pads for students along with pick list for faculty.

The results proved unprecedented in library history. Classroom quality and the currency of materials were materially enhanced at the same time as cost controls saved in excess of $25,000,000 annually. SloanC recognized our embedded librarians with its lead support award in 2014, and the Course Guides won major innovation prizes from IMS Global in 2012 and ACHE in 2013. Research actually exploded from some 3,500 to 150,000 monthly users in less than a decade. With 80,000,000+ annual searches, APUS emerged as a national leader – the top consumer of JSTOR and LibGuides and comfortably in the top ten for ProQuest and Ebsco databases.

Ultimately, the APUS model proffers reinvention of the virtual academic library. Precedence is given to tailored curricular services for individual departments and to librarians over collections. With it too, the Routledge Award engages in the evolution from distance into a new breed of online librarian.

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