7 Tips to Make the Most of Your College Library

By Connor Daniels
August 16, 2022

It’s not just you—"library anxiety" is a real phenomenon. Many students find the size, atmosphere, or complexity of their university library to be intimidating. Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of hefty tomes and experienced peers busily working on advanced projects, it can be easy to feel that your own research skills are inadequate. With the growing prevalence of online resources, some students might be tempted to never enter the library at all.

However, multiple studies (see here and here ) show that students who use the library frequently perform significantly better than their peers. Library resources provide vital information for completing term papers and other research projects, and, on a busy college campus, the library is often the quietest place for individual study. Learning to make the most of your library as a freshman can set you up for success during your college career.

1.Scout for Study Locations

When you first arrive on campus, take some time to explore the library before you're stressed about assignments that are due. Not only will this make you more comfortable being in the library, but it will also allow you to find the most promising study locations to use in the future. For example, you might find the common areas provide a fantastic atmosphere for reading, but secluded carrels or private study rooms offer a quieter location for intensive work. Make sure to ask a librarian if you need to reserve study rooms in advance.

2.Ask for Research Help

One of the most useful—and often overlooked—resources at your library is the librarians themselves. If you don't get an overview of library resources as part of your freshman orientation, the librarians would be happy to help you find your way around. Staff are also available throughout the year at most college libraries to assist you with your research. Their expertise can be invaluable in identifying the most helpful books and databases for your topic, saving you countless hours of ineffectual Googling. Check the library website or ask someone at the circulation desk to determine if you need to make an appointment in advance or if you can drop by during certain hours.

3.Search the Reference Section

When you begin a research project for one of your classes, take some time to peruse the library's reference section before diving deep into more narrowly focused sources. The reference section is basically like Wikipedia, but without questionable reliability. It contains general works, such as encyclopedias, academic dictionaries, and bibliographies designed to provide an overview of various topics. Checking these resources early in the research process can provide you with key contextual information, helping you to identify the specific question you want to investigate more efficiently. Reference works will often cite more detailed sources that address your particular topic, saving you time by indicating the most fruitful path forward.

4.Browse the Shelves

Another helpful way to begin a research project at the library is to browse the shelves that contain the books about your general topic. If you're not sure where to look, ask a librarian! Otherwise, try searching the library catalog for one or two books that seem useful, and then browse the shelves near where those books are located. Thanks to the library's filing system, you will often find books that didn't turn up in your catalog search but contain valuable information for your research.

5.Identify Online Databases

Google is a remarkable resource. But often, it's not useful for academic research since its search algorithm will generally prioritize a popular article on a blog or news website over an obscure but much more credible, peer-reviewed journal article. Don't waste time wading through the seventeenth page of Google results hoping to find something useful. Instead, ask a librarian about their online databases, which are collections of academic sources in a particular field connected to a search engine like Google. Your student credentials will enable you to log in to these databases through your library website, letting you search for your articles on your topic within a more reliable set of sources.

6.Learn to Use Interlibrary Loan

As your research projects become more advanced, you may need to consult books that are not available in your college library, particularly if you are attending a smaller school. But don't give up hope! Most academic libraries offer an interlibrary loan (ILL) program that will enable you to check out books from libraries across your state, country, or even worldwide. You can search resources available for ILL by using your university cre dentials to log in to WorldCat, an international library catalog. Take note—although these sources are useful, physical copies will generally take one to three weeks to arrive, so you will need to plan your research ahead of time to make the most of ILL.

7.Explore Special Collections

Libraries don’t just contain books and A/V materials. Your library might also house archives containing newspapers, photographs, private letters, rare books , and other artifacts. You won't be able to check these out from the library, but you can make an appointment with a librarian to access them for your research project. Take some time to ask a librarian what collections they have—you might find inspiration for your next project.

Physical libraries are invaluable to getting real academic work done as efficiently as possible, even in the internet age. There's no better way to overcome library anxiety than to hit the ground running freshman year and see what your college library offers.

Connor Daniels

Connor Daniels teaches humanities to 7th through 12th grade students at Bloomfield Christian School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In 2021, he graduated summa cum laude from Hillsdale College with a degree in history and politics. Connor intends to pursue a graduate degree in early modern history. In his free time, Connor enjoys reading and cooking with his lovely wife.
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