What’s “in” a Virtual Library?

March 2, 2008 at 10:20 am (virtual library)

Like Rhonda, I’ve identified nine content features.  However, I’ve combined library information with the home page, separated ethical use of information from curriculum and added a visual/interactive category.  I found “The Virtual Library” written by Valenza (2005) to be an invaluable resource.

Valenza suggests that the library home page be a picture, a visual metaphor, of an online information environment.  However, her school’s library homepage is the only one that I have seen that uses an image map.  Instead many use clip art or are starting to use digital photos to link to the information.  Still others provide still images like Senioritis or slideshares of pictures of their physical library to connect the physical and virtual spaces.  Winnipeg’s Ecole Charleswood Junior High Library has combined a still picture of a part of their library and the goals, yet another element of a virtual library, on their wiki opening page.

Most library webpages link to any number of the following from an introductory page: general library information, catalogue, databases, and subject links and/or pathfinders for students and teachers.  Valenza also suggests style manuals, reference tools and bibliography help.  On some library webpages academic material is on the left, reading for pleasure and personal interest is on the right and announcements are front and centre.  Resources for students and teachers are kept separate for ease of navigation (Pappas, 2004).   

If something is out of sight, it is often out of mind.  When it comes time to search, students often revert to Google that is familiar and habitual.  I love Valenza’s saying, “although Google rocks, it’s not the only band in town.”  By identifying a variety of age-appropriate search options students become more familiar with the different ways they function and with the invisible or deep Web that does not turn up in general search engines (Mardis, 2003; Fuller, 2005).  Subject specific search tools, subject portals, search engines, subject directories, metasearch tools, e-books such as those found at Follett (Church, 2005) and Gale (McCaffrey (2004), primary source docuents and databases are all possibilities.  I like the idea of annotations or descriptions popping up as mouse overs.   

If we want students to look beyond Google and other commercial search engines, we must point them to the quality resources that we want them to use.  Valenza promises that once students experience databases they wonder how they ever lived without them.  This student created video helps educate students about the benefits of databases and promote them at the same time.  However, in my exploration of virtual libraries, many still include Google as a search suggestion but pair it with instruction.  Rather than banning students who so obviously love to use it, teach them about how it works and how to use it properly.

By providing age appropriate examples of references for sources (on and offline) and explaining school-wide expecations for referencing, student frustration will be spared and respect for information will fulfilled.  Links can also connect students to more outside examples or citation generators. 

The virtual library also serves as a place to share curriculum online.  Instructional resources, collaborative lessons, handouts, graphic organizers and student work can be archived for easy access.  This way students receive instructional support at point of need. Pappas (2004) outlines two forms: tutorials (details steps supported with images) and guides or help sheets (more concise supported by fewer images).  It sends a strong message to all members of the school community that the library, both online and off, is the centre of learning.  By moving beyond instruction of specific resources to selection, evaluation and synthesis, students learn the importance of the information process and critical literacy (Pappas, 2004). 

Web-based pathfinders reduce cognitive overload by providing customized resources to meet a particular need.   When students pick a hyperlinked topic, they are taken to a page that can include any number of the following: concepts, definitions, keywords, questions, call numbers for books and references, periodicals, databases, subject portals, websites, streaming media, primary sources, blogs, wikis, etc.  Valenza says “pathfinders enable librarians to intervene in — but not take over — the research process to ensure students cover all research bases.”  Students who are accustomed to roaming free on the internet or teachers who permit them to do this may question the use of pathfinders.  Isn’t that doing the research for them?  By pointing students to high quality resources students are encouraged to use a variety and instead spend more time thinking critically about the information they find.  Structuring meaningful experiences for both studnets and teachers will aid in understanding of the purpose of pathfinders. 

In discussing pathfinders, Kuntz,” says “[t]he bottom line is that we are supporting students by guiding them through the gridlock of the information highway, assisting them in the development of effective search strategies, and helping them to understand that information is available in a variety of formats and from many resources, places and people.”

By building a virtual library using a blog or wiki or linking to one, news, events, additions, book discussions and assignment support can be easily updated without knowledge of code or ftp.  It is then possible for members of the school community – students, staff or parents – to subscribe through an RSS feed when the page is updated.  Others are also able to contribute by commenting, or collaborate by adding content to the virtual library if this is offered as an option either through blogging, a wiki or through social bookmarking.  There is a list of school libary blogs at the blogging libraries wiki.  Wikis have the added benefit of no longer requiring server space while students collaborate and teachers can monitor content changes through an aggregator.  While the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology’s Li-blog-ary has been cited in many of my readings, I don’t find the colors or font visually appealing.  While this is important to consider, you also can’t please everyone.  Hopefully, as users become accustomed to using the virtual library they will also become accustomed to its visual features.  Valenza suggests wiki pathfinders are even better because you can edit them anywhere and allow others to do so as well if you so choose.   

Lippincott (2005) calls for visual, interactive services as well.  Valenza (2006) suggests links to other classes, museums, subject experts and a media pathfinder of free and subscription streaming media.  Students may use the links to connect to a virtual reading group with students, teachers or other adults from near and far or a discussion with an academic from the community’s university or one on the other side of the world.  I remember having my students email questions to a Tolstoy expert in Toronto.  Now, with permission, the responses could be posted on a school’s virtual library for everyone to read.  I love the British Museum’s learning website, one part of which is dedicated to Mughal India.  Students can click on different objects in a virtual room to learn more about them. 

Students could be connected to research and information literacy sites such as those suggested by Junion-Metz (2004).  While I haven’t explored it in its entirety, the 30-minute Texas Information Literacy Tutorial or TILT for short provides information on six topics.  Even though it is geared towards university students, it could be used with high school students.  I like it’s simplicity and interactivity.  While the content may be good, for me Research 101 lacks visual appeal so I didn’t stick around.  KVYL How to Do Research is yet another example although very American in its color scheme.  While these sites may be helful in the short term or provide ideas for creating your own instructional support tools, it is important to provide support for the specific inquiry model that your school employs.  Pappas (2004)  stipulates “[d]evelopers of virtual websites need to select a process model and consistently follow that model throughout all the instructional resources.”  Pembina Trails School Division INFOZONE provides yet another example of instruction (in the left sidebar) integrated with resources down the centre.

A site map is a necessity for a virtual library (Pappas, 2004).  It can be text or visual like this homebase for the Research Rocket.  The latter is only a map for the research tutorial and not for a complete web library but it shows how a map can be an image rather than words alone.  The visual sitemap I think could work for junior high students but the portal and its contents are definitely geared towards a younger audience.  These examples illustrate the need for age appropriateness to be applied to content and visual appeal.

Thankfully, resources exist online to assist in building a school library website or virtual library.  Rhonda’s suggested Valenza’s Webquest about School Libraries.  I hadn’t come across this one before.  When I read it I must admit I felt very overwhelmed thinking how long does it take to do all this?  But then I reminded myself of what I wrote reflecting on my own experiences with virtual libraries: start small.  That’s why, as a beginner, I like this Virtual Library Design which is divided into advocacy, information and instruction. 

A curriculum based virtual library sends a strong message to the school community.  The school values meaningful and engaging learning through inquiry.  Through the information process, students learn critical literacy, information literacy and information ethics.  The school library page can serve as a celebration of learning where students publish for the world, contributing to the global body of knowledge.



  1. Judy O'Connell said,

    This is a superb ‘article’ about the value and purposes of a good virtual portal for our school libraries. Thank you for articulating and referencing the ideas so well. A great read!

  2. Jennifer said,

    I agree with Judy! Great information and so useful for others.


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