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What is an academic library?

In this step, you can find out what to expect from an academic library.
Pile of old books on a table
© Pixabay

With the closure of many public libraries and school libraries, a large number of students will start university without ever having used a library. That’s fine! We know everyone has had very different library experiences – you’re not expected to know how it all works and there will be plenty of help. Even if you are a regular library user, academic libraries are typically a little different and library systems can vary a lot, especially between countries.

This is a basic overview, to give you an idea of what to expect, even if you have never borrowed a book from a library previously.

What is an academic library?

What do we even mean by library? What is a library?

  • Is it a collection of texts?
  • Is it the building?
  • Is it a service?

The answer is all of the above! An academic library typically comprises one or more physical library buildings open to you as a student, library collections, both physical and digital, and library staff, running a range of services designed to support study and research.

Borrowing books and journals

Most academic libraries will have a general collection, from which you will be able to borrow books and journals (academic ‘magazines’).

You might take your books to a circulation desk where a librarian will register your loans for you on your online account. However, many libraries now have self-issue machines – effectively self-service points where you can borrow and return books yourself.

When you borrow a book, the item will be on loan to you until a given date – a due date or return date. You can check your account to see if you have been fined for hanging on to your books too long! Most fines can be easily avoided but if you have a problem returning an item on time, let the library know! Academic libraries will have exceptional circumstances policies, so for example, if you can’t return a book because you’ve been ill, any fines would usually be waived.

Online resources

Academic libraries provide an increasing number of online resources, including access to databases, journals and ebooks. You’ll generally find these listed in the library catalogue, but you may also have direct links to them from electronic reading lists that are put together for your courses.

Access to ebooks through academic libraries is generally a little different from public library provision. In most cases, you can’t download to a kindle or similar e-reader; instead, you can either read the text online, download some form of pdf version as a loan or download an individual chapter, usually as a permanent file. (Unfortunately, not all file formats created by online publishers are compatible with screen readers, so if you rely on screen-reader software to access texts, you may need to contact your library about accessible text options.)

Finding what you need

Ok, so you know how to borrow – but how do you find the book you need? To check whether the library has an item (and where you can find it), you will use the library catalogue. This is a web resource that will list everything the library has a physical copy of, as well as all the online resources the library provides.

You will be trained on how to use the catalogue and find what you need during your first few weeks at University by your friendly librarians!

Study space

Many academic libraries offer different study areas, allowing you to choose between silent zones, quiet spaces and areas where background noise is allowed. Or you may prefer to borrow resources and work elsewhere entirely.

More than ever before, academic libraries are trying to be flexible. Longer opening hours – with some buildings open 24 hours – allows you to study around other commitments, such as placements or caring responsibilities, or simply at the time you prefer.

Key messages

So what should you take away from this? Well, firstly, you don’t need to know how it all works when you start. You’ll have some kind of library induction – do go to that! – and there will be online advice as well. And when you go to your library induction, don’t panic – this isn’t your only chance to get this right. You don’t need to remember everything at once. You can always refer back to online guides and advice and you can always ask a friendly librarian!

So welcome to the library!

© University of York
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