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E-Learning in the Library: Developing an Online Library Research Tutorial

by Anna Hulseberg

The instruction librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College (GAC) in St. Peter, Minnesota has created a draft online library tutorial: “Doing Research at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library – and Beyond,” available at An examination of this draft tutorial serves to illustrate some of the issues concerning “e-learning” in the context of online library research tutorials.

Why Create an Online Library Tutorial?

The GAC library has a long tradition of course- and assignment-related library instruction. Throughout the years, librarians have supplemented this face-to-face instruction with print handouts, and more recently, Web guides. These print and Web guides cover a variety of issues, ranging from searching the online catalog to distinguishing between scholarly journals and popular magazines. An online library tutorial pulls all of these research guides together into a logical and linear arrangement that can provide the student with both quick answers to common research-related questions, and a better understanding of the complete research cycle. The online tutorial can provide guidance for students when they access online databases from remote locations as well as from within the library.

Library Tutorial Content

The GAC library tutorial consists of three modules. Module one, “Getting Started,” describes different types of research assignments, provides advice on finding an initial focus for research, and gives tips for planning a search. Module two, “Searching for Books, Articles, and More,” the lengthiest section, covers the process of actually searching for and locating items in the physical library and online. Module three, “Choosing and Using Sources,” covers topics such as evaluating and citing sources, and effectively integrating them into the text.

Librarians Jerilyn Veldof and Karen Beavers have compared the mental models of librarians and undergraduate students as they relate to online library tutorials. Through usability testing of the online library tutorial at the University of Minnesota, they found that “while students tend to view library research as a means to an end [i.e., a decent grade on a paper or speech], librarians tend to teach research as if it is an end in itself” (Veldof, 2001). Through the three modules described above, the GAC library tutorial balances the mental model of the student with that of the librarian. For instance, the “Getting Started” module addresses what might be an immediate concern of the student: that she understand the assignment and expectations of the professor, and that she identify a good topic for her research. Module two, “Searching for Books, Articles, and More,” covers the nuts and bolts of searching for resources, and also teaches general skills that librarians would like students to learn to apply to searches across different databases. Module three, “Choosing and Using Sources,” covers both basic issues such as how to cite sources, as well as more complex issues such as how to integrate sources into the text.

Library Tutorial Design

The GAC tutorial is arranged linearly. It consists of a total of four pages: the main page, which contains links to each of the modules, and one page for each of the three modules. Once you enter module one, there is a link at the bottom of the page to module two, and there is a link at the bottom of module two that leads to module three. Through usability testing of the online library tutorial at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Veldof and Beavers found that effective design allows “both a sequencing of movement, as well as freedom of movement within the tutorial” (Veldof, 2001). With that in mind, it may be useful to add more navigation to the GAC tutorial. For instance, a hot-linked outline of the entire tutorial in the left margin throughout would situate the user in the sequence of the tutorial, and would allow the user to click into various modules. It also might be helpful to split the subtopics within each of the modules into separate screens, in order to ease navigation and to make the text easier to read online.

Relationship to Library Instruction

Librarian Nancy Dewald has identified seven characteristics of good library instruction (Dewald, 1999). She argues that online tutorials “cannot completely substitute for a human connection in learning,” and that librarians should examine those “best practices” in library instruction that are “applicable to a Web environment” (Dewald, 1999). The GAC library tutorial can also be examined in terms of Dewald’s seven characteristics of good library instruction.

(1) Library instruction “is best received when it is course-related, and specifically assignment-related” – Given the GAC library’s long tradition of instruction, its online tutorial probably will not exist as a stand-alone tutorial, but will be integrated into the library’s instruction programs. In a discussion of the University of Arizona’s Research Instruction Online (RIO) tutorial, librarians Laura J. Bender and Jeffrey M. Rosen point out some of the ways an online tutorial may be used: professors can require classes to work through several sections in the tutorial prior to in-library instructional sessions; classes can work through it during library sessions; and librarians can use the tutorial during encounters at the reference desk (Bender, 1998 ) .

(2) “Active learning is of more benefit than lectures alone” – No active learning components (such as exercises to be completed by the student online) have been incorporated into the tutorial in draft form. Perhaps some of the basic exercises the GAC librarians often assign to first year students during instructional sessions could be integrated into the tutorial.

(3) “Collaborative learning” benefits library instruction – As Dewald mentions, using a tool like online conferencing software would probably not be helpful for a stand-alone or course-related tutorial, and would be administratively difficult (Dewald, 1999).

(4) “Being offered information in more than one medium helps students” – The addition of graphics used strategically might enhance the GAC tutorial. For instance, Venn diagrams to illustrate Boolean searches might be helpful.

(5) Stating “clear educational objectives” is important – The addition of an “Objectives” page might help both students and professors better understand the intention and layout of the tutorial. The GAC library might want to consider adding a “For Instructors” link similar to the link on the University of Minnesota’s tutorial (Veldof, 2001).

(6) “Good library instruction teaches concepts, not merely mechanics” – The GAC tutorial successfully balances teaching both mechanics (e.g., how to access the library catalog) and concepts that can be applied across various resources (e.g., Boolean searching and evaluating resources).

(7) “Good library instruction does not end with the class session, but includes the option for asking the librarian for help at any future time” – The GAC tutorial’s first module concludes with an invitation for students to visit the reference desk for research help. A reference librarian e-mail link throughout the tutorial might encourage students to follow up with further questions.


When its content is fully developed, “Doing Research at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library – and Beyond” will supplement librarians’ face-to-face teaching in course-related instruction sections and at the reference desk. As they finalize the tutorial design, the GAC librarians may want to consider adding more navigational tools, interactive exercises, and options for additional help from librarians. It may be helpful to split the subtopics within each of the three modules into separate Web pages. In addition, the librarians will probably want to develop strategies for integrating the tutorial into course-related instruction. Finally, they will need to assess the usability of the tutorial by seeking student feedback on both content and design. Though the tutorial will soon be out of the “draft” stage, it will always be a work in progress.


Bender, Laura J., and Jeffrey M. Rosen. “Working Toward Scalable Instruction: Creating the RIO Tutorial at the University of Arizona Library.” Research Strategies 16, no. 4 (1998): 315-325.

Dewald, Nancy H. “Transporting Good Library Instruction Practices into the Web Environment: An Analysis of Online Tutorials.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 25, no. 1 (1999): 26-32.

Fister, Barbara. “Doing Research at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library - and Beyond [DRAFT].” Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library. Gustavus Adolphus College <> (13 October 2003).

Veldof, Jerilyn, and Karen Beavers. “Going Mental: Tackling Mental Models for the Online Library Tutorial.” Research Strategies 18 (2001): 3-20.