People go into librarianship for numerous reasons, including the enjoyment of helping people discover and learn—establishing connections with their institutions’ stakeholders while helping themselves remain relevant. Many special libraries continue to provide face-to-face services, allowing for more readily established connections. However, as physical space for libraries is reduced and virtual libraries become increasingly common, the need for virtual services increases.
This change in service models means librarians must find ways to connect with library users when interacting at a distance.
In the field of instructional design, the theory of transactional distance is widely discussed. This theory postulates that distance education (i.e. virtual services) is not exclusively about physical distance. Instead, the distance between the teacher and student (i.e. librarian and library user) is more importantly a pedagogical barrier, meaning that knowledge and skills librarians share can get lost in translation. Specifically, “the theory of Transactional Distance states that as the level of interaction between teacher and learner decreases, learner autonomy must increase” (“Transactional distance, 2019, para. 3). Librarians need to consider both how to create connections to promote use of the virtual library and to encourage user autonomy when physical and pedagogical barriers are present.
Practical Tips for Lessening Transactional Distance
How can librarians maintain professional connections when working and interacting virtually with clients? Here are a few tips:
- Respond quickly to inquiries, even if it means sending an email to let the library user know you will reply to their request in a day or two. Initial acknowledgement of the request lets the user know you received the message and builds connection.
- If it is not feasible to respond to each e-mail with an acknowledgement of receipt, then be clear in your communication material about the timeframe in which the user should expect a response. Often the unknown is what frustrates people more than waiting.
- Select technology formats that meet the needs of your users. This can occur in two ways. First, use tools that are already widely used by the organization. If your organization uses SharePoint, create forms within the SharePoint platform. Second, when you do need to use tools that are specific to the library, select technology that is intuitive and allows for integration with other platforms. This will ensure the library is a key part of the larger organization.
- Create training resources that are self-paced and available for just-in-time learning. Library users need information at all hours of the day. For many, virtual libraries appear to be available at all hours as well. Just-in-time learning resources include on-demand tutorials, videos, etc. that explain how to use a tool or provide information frequently requested by users. For these resources, I encourage you to advertise them to stakeholders and also include your contact information at the end for additional questions. It is important for users to know there is a real person who can help them.
- When appropriate, create videos and use images. People respond positively when they engage with content that is not solely written. However, you want to be judicious; if the concept you are describing can most easily (and quickly!) be described in writing then use that format. The communication medium should fit the content.
- Find ways to be proactive in your support of organizational stakeholders. In a virtual setting, it can be more challenging for individuals to remember what services and resources are offered by the library. Opportunities for conversations at the water cooler or drop-in discussions are not available. Instead of waiting for people to discover the library, send monthly updates, ask to be included in new hire orientation, and discover the needs of specific departments and update them when new resources become available. Tailoring services to specific groups and individuals is a good way to lessen transactional distance.
Finding ways to build professional relationships with colleagues who are also library users can prove challenging in a virtual environment. There are ways, though, to reduce the distance between yourself and the virtual library user. Reducing the distance felt by organizational stakeholders creates opportunities for learning and continued use of library resources.
If you want to read more about transactional distance, I recommend the following resources:
Alewine, M. C. (2012). Listen to what they have to say! Assessing distance learners’ satisfaction with library services using a transactional survey. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 6(3-4), 136-146.
Moore, M. “Theory of transactional distance.” Keegan, D., ed. “Theoretical Principles of Distance Education (1997), Routledge, pp. 22-38. Retrieved from http://www.c3l.uni-oldenburg.de/cde/found/moore93.pdf
Transactional distance. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.instructionaldesign.org/models/transactional_distance/
Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri. Previously, she worked as an Instructional and Research Librarian at a private college in the Kansas City metro-area. Prior to working in higher education, she was employed by the National Archives and Records Administration and worked as an intern at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. Please read more on Lauren’s recommended skills for special librarians, and you may want to take a look at Lucidea’s powerful ILS, SydneyEnterprise.
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