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How to Get the Best Out of a University Library

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For a student entering higher education (in the United Kingdom at least) the most important things may seem to be:

  • Alcohol
  • Getting on with the people in your halls/dorms
  • 'Scoring'

But at some point, the library will loom large on the horizon and without proper care and consideration it can be a disturbing place. This entry contains tips on how best to use a university library to enhance your studies. It focuses on 'circulating' libraries, ie those which lend books out to people. Some higher education libraries don't do this, and so sections in this entry such as 'Fines' will be irrelevant to users of this type of library.


At some point during the haze of Fresher's Week/Freshmen Orientation, there will almost certainly be an opportunity for a library tour/introduction. Although this may be one of the most dull aspects of the entire period, it is truly advisable to go along. You will then find that you have a head-start in finding your way around and knowing how things work. Lucky students may even find a friendly member of the library staff with whom they can engage in gentle banter for the rest of their stay at university.

A key piece of information to find out is the availability of user education. Most higher education libraries will have opportunities for students to train in information skills, and will have a designated contact point or person to arrange this. In many cases, there will be a 'subject librarian' (sometimes known as 'faculty liaison librarian' or 'user education librarian') who should in theory know about the library's stock for a particular subject area and how best to find further information through print and electronic sources. Get their name, and keep it in a safe place! At some point, you will need them.


The Catalogue is Your Friend...

Almost every library these days has its catalogue (details of all its stock) in electronic form, generally accessed through what is known as an OPAC1. Computers dedicated to OPAC use are often scattered around the library and the catalogue should in theory be accessible from any computer connected to the Internet.

The ease of use of a library's OPAC varies from the 'my little baby sister can do it with ease' to the traditional librarian response of 'we'll make all the information available, but arrange it in such a way that only we can find it'. With practice, though, even those designed by minions of the evil one can be brought under control. If you don't understand how to use it, you should be able to find a member of the library staff who will be able to help you. Head for an 'enquiry desk' or the office of your subject librarian, or just pounce on someone as they're shelving2 and your difficulty should be greeted with sympathy.

Once you have mastered the correct way of asking the OPAC to divulge the information stored within it, you should get the following information about each item which matched your search terms:

  • The bibliographic details of the book (author, title and so on)
  • How many copies the library has
  • Whether these copies are on loan to anyone
  • Where the item is kept in the library

Often searches on the OPAC will throw out some surprising results. Often these can be books (or videos, CDs, etc) which you had never heard of but which are surprisingly relevant to your studies, but occasionally a result will appear which is completely irrelevant. This may be because the words you used in your search appear somewhere deep inside the catalogue record. The key advice here is the obligatory 'Don't Panic!' - it is not due to your error or to a fault in the catalogue, so just ignore anything bizarre which crops up.


Most universities in the United Kingdom are very keen on email communication, and in some cases it is the policy of the institution to use email wherever possible. This policy will often apply to the library, and messages from them will almost always come via email. It is therefore advisable to check your email regularly (let's face it, email is the world's greatest toy, so it's hardly a hardship) as otherwise vital library messages such as 'your book is overdue', 'the book you wanted has been returned' or 'we're having an amnesty on lost books' can be missed.

As with the catalogue, you should be able to find someone to show you how to use the e-mail system, whether in the library or at a computer helpdesk.

The Internet and Online Services

The Internet can be a very valuable research tool if used correctly, or if misused can make a good essay far less credible. Librarians these days are trained in Internet search techniques and can advise you about how to screen out 'bad' information. For many students, one of the best things about the library is that you have free Internet access there throughout the opening hours. Of course, it is intended for research purposes...

One of the main goldmines of the Internet when it comes to higher education are academic databases online, which your friendly librarians will be able to help you with. Each database works slightly differently. For most of these you will need a user name and password, often in the form of an ATHENS3 account which allows access to multiple services through the same login details. Some libraries will ensure that all students automatically have one of these accounts, but others require everyone to register individually - ask a library person for details if you're not sure.

These databases take many forms, including archives of maps and works of art, but the most useful (for most subjects) are tables of contents/abstracts services. These detail the contents of many journals (aka serials, periodicals, magazines, etc) so that relevant articles and so on can be found for your studies. A search session on one of these databases is likely to be a lot more productive in finding relevant material than going through the journal shelves in your library. Once relevant items have been tracked down, you can photocopy or borrow them if they are in your library, or it may be possible to obtain them from elsewhere, via a document delivery or inter-library loan service, though this will differ from institution to institution.

A very brief selection of key databases:

  • BIDS - a generic name for a number of different services including Injenta (a general journals service), ERIC (Educational Resources in Context) and IBSS (International Bibliography of Social Sciences), all of which include abstracts of the articles.

  • LION - LIterature ONline, which does what it says on the tin.

  • MEDLINE and other OVID services (formerly BIOMED) - for medical literature, which includes abstracts of all material referenced, and in some cases the full text.

  • PCI - the tables of contents for many journals going back several hundred years, particularly useful for Humanities students, including some full text.

  • ZETOC - the British Library's 'Electronic Table of Contents' service, which lists the articles in almost all of the journals etc. which they subscribe to from 1994 to the present. Zetoc does not usually include abstracts, but it does have an 'alert' service, which e-mails you as soon as the latest issue of relevant journals becomes available.

  • JSTOR - a collection of full-text journals covering arts, social sciences and 'hard' sciences, some going back to the early 20th Century, which can be searched by article title or from the full text of the article.

These services are particularly valuable if you study a field which moves quickly (medicine being a prime example), as books can often go out of date almost before they hit the shelves. Judicious use of online databases can lead you to the most recent research in the area, which should then be followed by a mad dash for the journal shelves and the photocopiers.

Many libraries also subscribe to electronic texts of one form or another - either the complete texts of books, or of selected journals or newspapers. Through your library you may be able to access a number of journals which you can print directly from the web (no messing around with photocopiers) or the digital archive of a newspaper such as The Times or the Washington Post. Ask your librarians for information about electronic resources for your subject area.

Classification Systems

Once you have found where the book you want is supposed to be, you have to do battle with the library's classification system, which on first look will appear to have been designed by a truly twisted mind, hell-bent on causing as much anguish as possible. However, the true intention is (at least in theory) to make locating a specific item or discipline easier for the user. Each item in the library will have a 'class mark' or 'location number' which is derived from whatever classification system the library favours. The two most common in British and American universities are the Dewey Decimal system and the Library of Congress system.


This system is commonly used in most British public libraries as well as a number of higher education libraries. It takes the form of three digits, a decimal point and a number of other digits. Each extra digit breaks the subject area of the book (or 'discipline') down more specifically. For example:

  • 800 is Literature
  • 820 is English Literature
  • 823 is English Prose Fiction
  • 823.5 is English Prose Fiction of the Eighteenth Century

To find the books on the shelves, locate each digit in turn. First find the '8' books, then within those the '82' ones, and so on until the end of the number4 and you're in the right place.

Library of Congress

This is the system used by the Library of Congress in the United States and has been adopted by some higher education libraries. 'LC' numbers take the form of one or two letters, followed by up to four numbers, followed by more letters and numbers where necessary. As with Dewey Decimal, these specify the main discipline of the book, and the technique for finding them on the shelves is much the same. For example, find the 'P' section, then the 'PB' section and then find the numerical section within it. NB: with Library of Congress numbers, PB 999 comes immediately before PB 1000.

Other Systems

Many other systems are in use in specific libraries, but the concept is still the same - the numbers are designed to allow the items to be found on the shelves. Some libraries, such as those within Oxford and Cambridge universities, use totally unique systems. Though none are quite as complex as that found in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, where the main point of the system was to make sure that no-one but the librarian could find anything.

Don't Forget to Browse...

Once you've found where a specific book or discipline is shelved, it is well worth browsing around the area to see if anything intriguing comes to light. Tutors tend to like it when you use books which aren't on their reading list as it shows some initiative, so this can really pay off. A good option is to go to the area where more general books are on your subject and flicking through the contents/index page to see if a chapter of it may be relevant to your studies. For example, if examining the Ring Cycle, then books on Wagner or opera (or indeed the myths the cycle is based on) may contain pearls of wisdom which could be missed if you only read books which mentioned the Ring Cycle in their title.

Other Stock and Facilities

It is extremely likely that your library will stock more than just books. Journals (aka periodicals, serials) are an invaluable source of information, and most libraries subscribe to numerous academic journals related to subject areas taught at the institution as well as to broadsheet newspapers (eg the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph or Le Monde) and such magazines as Time Out, the New York Review of Books, Variety, the Times Educational Supplement or similar. When finished with a journal, it is the height of courtesy to return it to the shelf, as often there will be numerous other students looking for exactly the same volume, particularly if you're looking at an article which is suggested reading for a seminar or popular essay topic. Very few libraries allow journals to be borrowed by students.

If music or media are taught at the institution, then a stock of videos, CDs and DVDs is also likely. Access to these may be limited, but is usually free. Some libraries only allow them to be watched or listened to on the premises, with viewing rooms provided, while others issue media items on loan overnight or for a week. This is particularly useful at weekends if the institution teaches a film course, as great films - both old and new - may be available to all students.


Most college/university libraries will have various photocopiers, either congregated together in a photocopying room, or scattered throughout the library. These are most used by people who don't want to read journal articles in the library, but would rather copy them and take them home. Also handy for preparing handouts or overhead transparencies for seminars. The photocopiers are likely to get very busy at 'peak' times, so whenever possible, it's best to use them at quiet times. First thing in the morning and the late afternoon are ideal in most places.

It's probably worth noting that there will be (or at least should be) copyright legislations displayed near the photocopiers. These vary from country to country, and state what may and what may not be copied. It's your responsibility to abide by these rules, and although a prosecution is unlikely, you really never know...


One thing that is guaranteed to make the task of finding books more arduous is a lack of specificity. Asking for 'that red book I borrowed last week' will not yield results, and the more specific a question you can ask (either of the catalogue or of the staff) the better results you'll get. Write down the names of authors you'll need, or of the specific theories/diseases/whatever that you're looking for, and check the spellings! Looking for 'Elliott' will not find you The Waste Land, but looking for 'Eliot' will. It's little things like that which can make all the difference.

Similarly with subject matter - take psychology for instance. In terms of location of books (and indeed the usefulness) there is a world of difference between social psychology, biological psychology or any other branch of the science. Specificity will reap great rewards.

Books the Library Doesn't Have

Inter-library Loans

Even the best-stocked library (yes, even the Bodleian at Oxford or the library at Harvard) will not have every book you could ever need, but do not fear, there is still hope! All higher education libraries will have a team of people whose job is to beaver away finding books and journal articles from other libraries for people whose research is a little off the beaten track for the library's stock. This service, known as either Inter-Library Loans or Document Delivery, is run in a different way in each institution, so access to it may differ. In exchange for a small fee or a voucher from your tutor, the library can gain access temporarily to most books which a library in your country holds in their stock. Ask your friendly librarian for details of the service, which is most likely to be useful during the dreaded dissertation-writing period of your university career.

Co-operative Schemes

Many academic libraries in the United Kingdom belong to various co-operative schemes, the two most important of which are the UK Libraries Plus scheme and the SCONUL Vacation Access scheme. UKLP allows distance learning students to have access to a library close to where they live, including limited borrowing ability. The vacation access scheme is just that, meaning that during vacations, most academic libraries will welcome students who are home from their studies, though generally it is only for reference purposes and borrowing is not allowed. Speak to your librarians about these schemes if they would be useful.

Local co-operative schemes often exist as well, meaning that you may have reference or limited borrowing access to other local libraries. It's always best to check this with your own library staff rather than assume this is the case, as the rules and procedures can be somewhat odd.


You're paying thousands of pounds in tuition fees, your core text books are hideously expensive, you have to eat, and your booze/Star Trek/shoes habit needs to be funded, so let's face it, you really don't want to have to pay money to the library. Most university libraries will charge you for late return of their stock, in order to ensure that the books keep circulating, but almost all library staff members would be more than happy if no one ever had to pay a fine5.

It's easy to avoid fines, but everyone (even people studying librarianship courses) is likely to slip up once or twice. The best thing to do is to write the due dates of your books in your diary. Then surround the date in green highlighter pen. And glitter. Then you can't miss it. Even if you forget to take the books in with you on your trip to the campus, books can normally be renewed if you present your library card at the loans desk. Or if you just can't be bothered to go in at all, most libraries will allow you to renew by telephone or via the Internet.

If you have gone overdue on your books for a good reason (not 'it was raining' or 'they're so heavy') then choose a friendly-looking staff member and they may exercise some leniency. But don't do it too often; most library computer systems are quite sophisticated and will have a record of all your past fines on it. Someone with several hundred pounds in cancelled fines could become the academic equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.

Other Library Users


In the land of stereotype, the most common noise heard in libraries is 'shhhh', but this is for good reason. Many library users will want to be working in a quiet atmosphere, so it helps to stick to the noise guidelines of the place. Many libraries will have specific areas allocated for group study, where loud conversations are fine, and similarly silent areas where glares of death will be extended by those around you if you so much as cough. Mobile phones are almost certainly banned, but some libraries now have areas set aside where mobile phone use is tolerated.

Food and Drink

Almost all libraries will ban food and drink, with prominent posters featuring ridiculous clip art of some kind. This is to protect books, equipment and furniture rather than to be mean, and is also kinder to those around you. The crunching of crisps or the smell of coffee is a huge distraction.

Hide and Seek

When you've forgotten your library card, or you've reached the limit of books you can take out, or for whatever other reason you want to make sure that a particular book is available another day, then temptation comes creeping up. It is very tempting to hide a book somewhere other than where it is meant to be, so that only you can find it. This tactic is likely to be very successful, as even the most efficient libraries will be unable to check along every shelf every day for misfiled books, but it is also truly evil. Only if you have no regard for your fellow students should you attempt it. And remember, the more you do it, the more likely it is that others will, and that a book you need will mysteriously migrate from the French Language section to the Australian Geography shelves.

Library Staff

The bane of existence, only to be tolerated because otherwise books are completely inaccessible? Personal slaves who will jump to your every whim? Fun-loving crazy people? Machines built only to shush? Whatever you may think of the library staff, you'll end up having to relate to them at some point.

Make Friends

A good move to make during your studies is to make friends with at least one member of library staff, and to be generally friendly towards most of them. Not only are most library people at least slightly eccentric, and therefore somewhat entertaining, but the nicer you are to them, the more flexible they're liable to be. If you're always grumpy or moan at them constantly, then there is little hope of them going the extra mile when you need it.

Also, as the majority of higher education library staff (at least in the UK) will have at least one degree (anyone with 'librarian' in their job title is likely to have at least two), their knowledge can come in handy. It is surprising how often someone can guess at the assignment someone is working on by glancing at their loans, and can therefore point them in a new and useful direction. The bigger the library, the more likely there is to be someone who is an expert on your area of study. Never be surprised if someone suddenly starts debating philosophy, the theory of relativity or the relative merits of Shakespeare's history plays when they're issuing books to you.

When Librarians Attack

One final piece of advice - never, ever get on the wrong side of a librarian; they are a truly dangerous species. The revenge they can wreak is devastating and most will have an awful lot of frustration ready to vent at anyone foolish enough to give them an excuse. Frustrations at not being able to find books, irritation when the computers crash, or swearing at the photocopier which has just eaten chapter two of a dissertation are all understood, but the moment it becomes personal, then beware!

Rudeness to library staff is never tolerated and will often be reported to academic staff from the rude person's faculty/school/department. This can lead to loss of 'library privileges' (ie the right to borrow books) or even of access to the institution's computer network for a short space of time. If not, then library staff often function as a tribal unit and an attack on one is seen as an attack on all. Someone who is known to have been inexcusably rude will become instantly known to the entire staff and life can become very difficult. If you suddenly discover that every book you borrow has been reserved, or that you get one or two word answers to any query, then think back - did you get on the wrong side of a librarian? If so, fix it, quickly!

1Online Public Access Catalogue.2Most library assistants welcome distractions from shelving, so this is often a good move.3Which doesn't actually stand for anything at all.4Which may have three letters after it to denote author or title.5However, beware, as all libraries have at least one evil inflexible member of staff, though they are generally confined to an office far away from any unsuspecting students.

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