Staying Connected as a Distance Learner

When I applied for my MLS a few years ago, the realities of the working world had me dreaming of a retreat from the outside world in the arms of academia.  I pictured days spent in stimulating classes and evenings immersed in my studies, totally plugged into the world of libraries and library science at all times. I would specialize in something fantastic, meet tons of like-minded people, and not have to report to a desk job every day.  Student loan debt be damned, I wanted an escape.

Shortly after hitting “send,” life intervened.  Between a 500+ mile move, a new job with just enough travel to make night classes impossible, and sheer economic reality, it quickly became apparent that escaping into classes and living off student loans for two years was just not going to happen. Two years and two deferments later, I find myself almost finished with my first semester in the University of Maryland College Park’s online MLS program.

I’m happy with my decision to switch to the online program, but I do sometimes feel that I’m missing out on the intangible benefits of face-to-face learning.  My day job has NOTHING to do with libraries, so I don’t get the water cooler chitchat, the special programming posters in the hallway, the classroom tangents that have nothing to do with that day’s planned discussion but are oh-so-valuable.  I get online class discussion boards, and nothing more.  Not quite the immersive experience I had in mind when I sent in my application, and an easy recipe for low motivation.  So to keep myself from feeling totally cut off, I’ve come up with a few strategies to get my library buzz.

Get to a real library as often as possible. Obvious I know, but I try to spend a few hours a week in a real library, normally Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Central Branch. I find that it makes my coursework seem much more “real world” when I can imagine the discussion concepts being actively played out in the space I’m sitting in. For a more academic feel, I’ve also taken advantage of Maryland’s university system privileges and lurked in other universities’ libraries.  Getting to the College Park campus on a regular basis just isn’t going to happen, but the University of Baltimore’s library is just a few blocks away.  It’s not my university, but visiting UB really helps in holding off the feelings of isolation that crop up when my laptop is my main connection to my MLS program.

Stack your Twitter feed with library content.  This is a nice stand in for the classroom chatter you miss as an online student.  In addition to HLS’s feed and a lot of the other Hackers, I follow the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the ALA, the ALA’s magazine, Library Journal, the Library of Congress, Guardian Books, the Oxford English Dictionary (who have a great blog), the Maryland Library Association, Social Libraries, and a few others.  The little bits of library gossip this generates gives me a sense of the library community at large, and also provides a better frame of reference for the things I read for my classes.

Join ALA’s student chapter. There are many reasons you should do this, but let’s focus on those particularly appealing to the remote student trying to stay connected to the library world. In addition to saving on the conference registrations that will let you meet a whole lot of peers at once, ALA membership means things like access to the ALA Connect discussion boards and weekly ALA Direct e-news. Meaning, it gives you networking opportunities and professional updates. Speaking of ALA membership perks…

Read the American Libraries Magazine. In a similar vein to loading up your Twitter feed with library content, this will give you some of the “water cooler” type discussions you might be missing out on as a distance student.  This month the magazine taught me about a rise in libraries hosting fantasy football leagues and a really cool media literacy program at the San Jose, CA public library, among other things. I might have caught these in passing as an on-campus student, but I never would have heard about them as a distance student if not for the magazine. You can read the current issue online without paying for an ALA membership, but nothing makes me feel more like a real (almost) librarian than having issues of American Libraries scattered around the house.

Find yourself some library blogs. You already know about us, but who else do you read in the world of library blogging?  When I’m in the mood for some serious discussion of library issues, I’ll lead to Librarian In Black or The Unquiet Librarian.  On days that I just want some fun, I’ve been known to spend perhaps more time than is healthy on Awful Library Books and A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette

Take advantage of special programming. The ALA chapter at UMD College Park recently organized a tour of the library at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD.  It meant taking a day off of work and driving to Greenbelt, but for the first time this year ever I got to talk to other MLS students, in person and everything! The tour was pretty cool too 🙂

E-mail your professors. It’s a good idea to read the syllabus first, but if you have questions about when a certain item is due, how to format a paper, or ANYTHING, e-mail them.  They don’t bite, and you don’t have the option of hoping someone else will ask at the start of the next class.  This is also the distance-learning equivalent of introducing yourself on the first day.  You’re probably going to be asking these people for job recommendations in a few short years, so it’s ultimately to your benefit to make sure they know who you are.  Much easier to do that with an e-mail than by hoping your discussion board posts really stand out.

Ultimately your level of connection to the world of library science as an online student is going to be directly related to the effort you put into making the connection. It’s a little more work, but so far I’ve found that a conscious effort to stay connected makes the difference between feeling like a librarian-in-training, and feeling like a cubicle drone who happens to take a few classes in her spare time.

If you’re also a distance student, what do you do to stay connected?

9 replies

  1. Great post Kara! I had similar concerns as a distance learning student and have found similar ways to deal. I think there are great advantages too: I’m usually being forced to explore new technology and connection methods that I wouldn’t overwise be exposed to. I would add one more to your (great) list: stay in touch with other students that you do group work with or just seem to jive with based on discussion board posts. Become facebook friends and/or exchange email addresses, continue the connections past that one class. Having just a few others in my cohort that I “know” keeps me connected (and gives me people to ask about classes or professors). Or see if there are other students in your classes in your area that you could actually meet up with. You never know. The more you can connect with people — even through an electronic medium — the better.


  2. Great advice, Kara! I do have a library job, but I work in a public library rather than in the academic library to which I aspire, so it’s important to stay connected with my professional interests online. Twitter is such a great tool. For aspiring academic librarians, I would also recommend immersing oneself in the academic literature related to your interests, which is why I loved your plug for “American Libraries.” There are a lot of LIS journals out there that too few librarians read.


  3. Great ideas! Our ALA Student Chapter has a Facebook group, and it’s another way for the online students to stay connected. I always enjoy meeting online students at various school or student chapter events, since they bring a different perspective.


  4. Great article! Even though I’m a distance student, because I’m located half an hour from campus, I have been able to meet some of the library school students and staff in person. So any of you distance students out there who are not too far away from campus, try to visit the campus every once in a while to attend ALA or SLA student chapter events or some other activity where you’ll have a chance to meet library school folks.

    Follow lots of blogs! I was actually able to meet two other students from my school by coming across their blogs (one of them being Lesley, the commenter above me! 🙂 )

    Attend conferences and workshops as well, and ask your classmates if they will be going as well. Last month I attended a conference held by my state’s library association and met another distance classmate in person…she posted in my class discussion board asking if anyone was attending and I responded to that post. We met up and had a blast!


    • I really should be better about visiting my campus! It’s about an hour drive from home on an average traffic day, which isn’t awful but just enough to make it an event. Maybe once the current semester wraps up I’ll take a drive down and buy myself a “Fear the Turtle” sweatshirt 🙂


  5. Thank you for this post! I was a distance student and often felt disconnected from my program. Working in a library helped, but I wish I had gotten past my shyness and connected more with the professors. Now I look for every possible opportunity to connect with my colleagues!


  6. Kara,

    Thank you so much for this post. As my second year winds down, I am definitely feeling the pangs of being a distance learner. So much so that I am considering relocating to be closer to the university and feel more a part of something, rather than just another name in the class. I will take your advice into consideration and make sure I subscribe to more blogs and professional magazines! I am SO looking forward to this year’s Texas Library Association Conference!


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