About 75% of colleges and universities in the United States currently offer distance learning courses at some level, with another 10% of medium and large sized institutions intending to do so in the future (Connick, 1999).
According to the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications in 2001, "The number of universities in the United States offering online degree courses would be an estimated 34% in the year 2002." Therefore, it is imperative that library resources and services in institutions of higher education meet the needs of all their students, wherever these students are located -- whether on a main campus, off campus, or in distance education programs. Higher learning institutions are able to describe the nature of change for distance learner's library needs, but seem less prepared to describe what changes are needed. College and university librarians are acutely aware that usage of their websites and electronic resources is growing. They observe that, since distance learners need electronic library resources, knowledge about the needs of their student users is limited (Kirby, 1999).
As Pennsylvania State University ascertains, "A virtual library is a collection of information that is stored and accessed electronically. The information stored in the library should have a topic common to all the data" (2001). For example, a virtual library can be designed for computer graphics, operating systems, or networks. These separate libraries can be combined under one common interface that deals with computers, but it is essential that the information contained within each library remain separate. The purpose of a virtual library is to provide a central location for accessing information on a particular topic. The last thing a user wants to happen when he/she searches for information about computer graphics is to get information on operating systems. A virtual library must keep topics separate; otherwise it would be totally useless. A virtual library should also have a user interface that is easy to use.
Definitions of distance learning vary. According to LaSalle University, in its simplest terms, distance learning takes place when the student and instructor are separated by physical distance (2005). The terms distance education and open learning are synonymous with distance learning. Distributed learning is another synonym, usually referring more specifically to programs where courses are taught online, and collaboration and virtual interaction among students in the same course are encouraged (Connick, 1999).
For purposes of this study, distance learning and distance education will be used synonymously to mean that the student and the instructional source are separated by physical distance, that they may interact synchronously or asynchronously, and that course delivery methods include the use of various kinds of current technology. Virtual library and digital library also will be used synonymously to mean that a collection of information is stored and accessed electronically.
The profile of a distance learner is one of an older person compared to an average person at conventional colleges and university. Thompson (1998) cites several studies that corroborate that the average age of distance learners lies