Using the Library

Whenever you have research to do—whether for a class, your job, or your personal life—visit a library. We can’t stress this advice enough. Although the Internet is loaded with billions of pages of information, don’t be fooled into thinking that it will serve all your needs. For one thing, you’ll have to sort through a lot of junk to find your way to good-quality sources online. More important is that if you limit yourself to the Web, you’ll miss out on some of the best materials. Although we often think that everything is electronic and can be found through a computer, a great deal of valuable information is still stored in traditional formats and is most easily accessed through a library.

Every library has books and journals as well as a great number of items in electronic databases that aren’t available on public Web sites. Librarians work with your professors to determine which sources and materials are required to support teaching and research at your institution. Librarians carefully select well-respected and credible resources with you and your research in mind. Most libraries also have several other types of collections, such as government documents, microfilm, rare books, manuscripts, dissertations, fine art, photographs, historical documents, maps, music, and films, including archival and documentary productions.

Take Advantage of Everything Your Library has to Offer

Books and periodicals are essential, but a college or university library is far more than a document warehouse. For starters, most campus libraries have Web sites that offer lots of help for students. Some provide guidelines on writing research papers, conducting online searches, or navigating the stacks. They all provide invaluable services to students and faculty members, including virtual spaces for accessing library holdings and the Web, physical spaces where you can study in quiet or meet with other students, and perhaps even social and entertainment programs.

Of course, no one library can possibly own everything you might need or enough copies of each item, so groups of libraries share their materials with each other. If your library does not have a journal or book that looks promising for your project or if the item you need is checked out, you can use interlibrary loan, a service that allows you to request an item from another library at a different college or university. The request process is often very simple, and the librarians can help you get started. Some materials, such as digitized articles, can come via e-mail, while others, such as books, have to be sent through the mail. In most cases, you can expect to receive the materials in as little as a few days, but just in case the material is in high demand, it’s always a good idea to identify and request what you might need from other libraries as far in advance as possible.

Are you a commuter or distance education student who cannot easily visit your college library in person? Most libraries provide off-campus access to their electronic materials to students who log in with a school-provided username and password. Usually, the library’s home page serves as an electronic gateway to its services, which may include the following:

  • A searchable catalog of the books and journals the library owns in print

  • Electronic databases, some of which let you access the full text of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles from your computer

  • Interlibrary loan requests

  • Course reserve readings

  • E-books

  • Indexes of Web sites that have been carefully screened for reliability and relevance to particular subject areas

  • Online chats with librarians who can help you in real time

To learn more, poke around your library’s Web site or e-mail or call the reference desk.

Libraries also have a wide variety of physical spaces for students, staff, and faculty members to use. From individual study tables to private group rooms to comfortable chairs tucked in quiet corners, you should be able to find a study area that suits you and your needs. You might also discover places to eat, socialize, take in a movie or an art exhibit, check your e-mail, keep up with your social networks, search the Web, type your papers, make photocopies, edit videos, give presentations, hold meetings, or take a much-needed nap.

Be sure to use the handouts and guides that are available at the reference desk or online. You will also find tutorials and virtual tours that will help you to become familiar with the collections, services, and spaces available at your library.

Ask A Librarian

Of all the resources available in a library, the most useful—and often the least used—are the people who staff it. Librarians thrive on helping you. If you’re not sure how to start a search, if you’re not successful in your first attempts at retrieving information, or if you just need some ideas about what you might try as you pursue a research project, ask a librarian. Librarians are information experts who are trained to assist and guide you to the resources you need. The librarians who work in the reference area or supervise the computer stations might look busy, but they are busy helping people with projects much like yours, and you are not interrupting when you ask for assistance. Remember the 20-minute rule: If you have been working diligently on a research project for 20 minutes and haven’t found what you need, stop and ask a librarian for help. Let the librarian know what searches you’ve tried, and he or she will be able to help you figure out new strategies to get to the information you need.

You can contact a reference librarian in several ways. If you query by e-mail, you are likely to receive a quick reply. You can also call the reference desk to ask a question, such as “Do you have a copy of the report Problems with the Presidential Gifts System?” You can have a “live chat” online with a library staffer in real time, and you can always visit the reference desk in person or make an appointment for a tutorial or consultation. (Hint: You will be most successful if you bring a copy of your assignment and any written instructions you have to your meeting. Tell the librarian what, if anything, you have tried.) Remember that there are no silly questions. A good librarian will treat your inquiries with respect.

The information professionals at your library are authorities on how to find information. They not only know where to find it, but they also have the wonderful ability to help you use information to meet your needs, solve problems, provide explanations, open up new possibilities, and ultimately create new knowledge.

stacks The areas in libraries containing shelves that are full of books available for checkout.