8 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your University Library
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University libraries: invaluable resources or unheated caverns of stress?
Certainly, they ought to be the former, but students very often see them as the latter. There are plenty of students who graduate boasting about how little they’ve visited the library, managing to get through their reading list with bookshops and Google Scholar alone. For others, the library is their last-resort location to grab a few key texts ahead of a panicked all-nighter, usually including a period of shouting at the photocopier when it claims they haven’t got enough credit to copy their entire textbook.
It should be obvious that it doesn’t need to be like this. If you use your university library to its full potential, it can be one of the most useful and enjoyable places you set foot in during your entire time at university. For the best students, going to the library is a pleasure, not a chore, even when essay deadlines are approaching.
The key obstacle most students face in developing this kind of relationship with their library is that they simply don’t know how to make the most of it. So in this article, we explain what you can do to unlock your university library’s full potential.
It’s hard to stress just how valuable the initial library tour can be. You might think that you’ve been in a library before so it’s all self-explanatory, but a university library is to a school or even public library what a tiger is to a housecat. Chances are that if you skip the initial tour, there will be facilities and services available at the library that you just won’t find out about – and you’ll be deeply annoyed with yourself if you only find out about something hugely useful in your third year. Similarly, it’s no fun at all trying to navigate an inter-library loan system when you need a book urgently, rather than already having been introduced to it on a tour.
Don’t forget that there may be more than one library open to you. If you’re in a collegiate university, your college may have its own library in addition to the main university one. There might also be a separate library for your subject. There might not be formal tours for these, but it’s worth taking the time to get to know them as well, and to figure out when you want to use which library. You’ll also want to know their different opening hours, and if there are different rules about withdrawing books.
Finally, going on the initial tour or at least visiting the library very early on during your time at university lets you have a look and see if any of your textbooks are available on long-term loan, which can save you a lot of money.
You don’t need to become a fully qualified librarian, but getting to know the Dewey Decimal system – or whatever variation your university library uses – is definitely worth the small amount of effort it will take you. It’s not just about knowing what the classes are, but also knowing roughly where they are in your library building. For instance, if there’s a chunk of your subject that’s down a corridor, on a different floor or otherwise somewhere other than you would expect, that’s something you’ll want to know early on, and not when you’re hunting for a book less than 24 hours in advance of your essay deadline.
Understanding of the Dewey Decimal system is usually something that will also develop with time and closer acquaintance with the library; you’ll start to understand the logic behind why certain books are in certain sections. Pay a bit more attention to this when it comes up, and you’ll find the effort pays off.
It’s easy to get subject blinkers and spend time solely in the section of the library dedicated to your own subject. After all, this is the subject that you chose so carefully; why would you need to look at anything else?
But in fact, there can be a great deal of value in exploring other subjects. One reason is that no subject is an island – there is always overlap. For instance, your article on the 18th century novel might draw on History, Sociology or Gender Studies. You can learn a lot by going directly to texts in those fields and seeing what you can learn from them – and it means that your bibliography won’t look identical to those of everyone else in your class. You might also find that writers in your subject simplify what they borrow from other subjects; going straight to the source can give you a more nuanced picture, which can be very useful if you’re trying to find holes in a writer’s argument.
Another reason is that other subjects and areas can be extremely interesting. On a basic level, the English literature section will have a lot of great novels and collections of poetry, alongside all the literary criticism. Not everything in a university library will be at undergraduate or graduate level; some books are likely to be aimed more at the general reader, so you’ll have the chance to learn about a subject that you might never otherwise have explored.
Some of the people working in the library will be your fellow undergraduates, who will trundle trolleys around, restore books to shelves, and maybe occasionally tell someone off for bringing hot drinks into the photocopier room. You might be under the mistaken impression that this is what a librarian does. But there’s a reason that becoming a librarian typically requires a specialised degree, either a bachelor’s degree or a Master’s, and it isn’t because it takes years to master the art of saying “shush!” at exactly the right volume.
Librarians are, in fact, highly trained professionals, who are skilled in research and finding information. That means that if there’s something you’re desperately trying to find out – the name of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s history teacher, say, or the year that chrysanthemums were first grown in Ireland – asking a qualified librarian might not be a bad place to start, at least after you’ve exhausted the obvious places, such as Google.
There might be encyclopaedias and archives that you’re not aware of, especially if you’re dabbling in something that falls outside of your usual field. At the very least, they should be able to guide you towards a good place to start for almost any given query. And if you came on the initial library tour, you’ll be able to say that you already tried all the obvious places when they ask you the librarian equivalent of whether you tried turning it off and on again.
One perk that university libraries have over large public libraries and the like is that they’re much more likely to have rare or notable books in their collections. The Universities of Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Warwick, Bristol and many more have specific rare book collections and sometimes associated reading rooms, which makes it easier to know where to look. Of course, ‘rare’ doesn’t necessarily mean interesting – but it certainly can do.
The St Andrews collection, for instance, includes the very first printed books brought to the town in the 15th century. Age is definitely a factor in books that are classed as rare, as is value.
This does mean that it can be hard work getting permission to nose around the rare books in the first place. For the rarest items in the university collection – such as unique manuscripts – you are likely to need a genuine academic reason to have a look. It’s not unknown for students to structure essays in order to have the need to look at a particular book or collection! Permission from your lecturers can also help. And of course, you’ll need to follow the rules to the letter, or run the risk of not being invited back. But it feels very much worth it if you do get to look at the only copy of a manuscript in the world, the handwriting of someone famous, or a book printed when the printing press was a technology newer, more exciting and more disruptive than the internet is today.
It can feel very grand, the first time you request an interlibrary loan. If you usually use books that are easily accessible, you might well find yourself feeling that as an undergraduate, you have no right to make so much trouble as to use the service. But remember: that’s what it’s there for! If your library doesn’t have a particular book, there’s no need to spend a fortune on Amazon or fiddle around trying to read it via the previews on Google Books. If it’s not outrageously rare, it’s very likely that a library somewhere will have it, and they will be able to send it to your library on request.
While most libraries will also allow a visiting student to browse their collections, the interlibrary loan system is much easier – no travelling for you – and can also include photocopies and scans as well as loans of the physical book or journal. Plus, there’s something very exciting about ordering a book from the opposite end of the country and having it arrive to facilitate your research. Many libraries will have arrangements not only with libraries in the same country, but overseas as well.
The library isn’t just a place to grab books and flee. It can also be a great place to study, especially if your university is more generous with its heating bills than some. For one, there are vastly fewer distractions than you might face while working at home. For another, most of the resources that you might want are right next to you. Some libraries have the virtue of being architecturally inspiring; in others, you at least know that you won’t be distracted by the beauty of the ceiling.
The library isn’t just useful for quiet independent study. Many libraries will also have group study spaces that can be reserved, where you and a group of friends can work together – whether that’s on the same project, or simply motivating each other by all getting on with work in the same space. It might not seem like much, but being able to work in a group, but uninterrupted by housemates or fire alarms, is not to be underestimated. You’re normally also allowed to make more noise in study rooms than you are in the rest of the library, so these spaces are a good option if you want a chat without disturbing everyone else.
We’ve talked mostly about books in this article, but don’t forget that a modern library has many more resources than that. There are likely to be collections of DVDs, audio recordings, newspaper archives and a whole host of other multimedia that many students simply ignore. Some of this may prove useful for your course, and as it’s an underused resource, this is another opportunity to find sources that the other students on your course may have missed.
The most useful resource other than books that your library has to offer you, however, is access to online journals. This is a mainstay of most students’ research, though some don’t cotton on to it until later on in their courses. For virtually any subject you can think of, your university is probably paying for access to a host of academic journals. Because of the faster turnaround time, they’re usually more up to date than the equivalent books. If there’s something that you’ve found on Google Scholar without full access, try and see if you can find the journal among those provided by your university library online – all the big ones are likely to be there, and then you can read the article at its source.
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