Ask a Professor: How to Get the Most Out of a University Library

3 min read

Share this Article


  • Your university library offers more than books, a cafe, and quiet study spaces.
  • Interlibrary loans, online databases, and subject librarians can help you excel in school.
  • Many libraries also offer iPad rentals, software access, and streaming services.
  • Learn how to use the library to improve your college experience — and even your grades.

As an undergraduate, I worked in the university library. In between shelving books and processing new monographs, I learned a startling fact: Fewer than half of the students at my school ever visited the library.

Many students miss out on the benefits of the university library because they simply don't know what it offers.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

You might assume the library has little more than books, some study carrels, and a cafe. But university libraries are research hubs that connect students with information in every subject imaginable.

And most campus libraries offer software, equipment rentals, and entertainment — if you know where to look.

What Does Your University Library Offer?

If you've only walked through the campus library during a tour, you're missing out on all it can offer. Students benefit from research materials, subject-matter expertise, and even iPad rentals.

Your university library is more than just a repository for books — it's an information center with thousands of resources. Here's what you're missing out on if you skip the library.

Books, Journals, and More

Yes, the library has books. But your campus library collection goes way beyond the materials you might find at your local public library. The University of Washington Libraries, for example, house over 9 million books, journals, and more resources.

In addition to printed material, university libraries collect video and audio recordings, films, and microforms — the tiny reproductions printed on film that you can read on a clunky old machine.

Whether you're looking for the latest fiction bestseller or an academic article, you can probably find it at your university library.

Online Databases

Students tend to rely on online databases a lot in college. And after graduation, you'll miss the easy access to thousands of journals and newspapers that are typically stuck behind a paywall.

What's a database good for? Databases collect dozens or hundreds of electronic publications. Libraries then subscribe to these databases so they can provide access to students.

The Cornell University Library gives students access to image databases, publisher catalogs, medical journals, and psychology databases.

With your student login, you can access online databases from anywhere without ever stepping foot in the library.

Research Support

Need help with a research paper? Make an appointment with a research librarian at your school. Many larger libraries have specialists in diverse fields who can help you track down sources, find the best database, and organize your research materials.

Check out the research services at Stanford Libraries for an idea of what's possible. Research librarians can help you digitize sources, use statistical software, and find the best citation software.

They even train students to use hardware, software, and other information management technologies.

Interlibrary Loans

What if a book isn't available at your university library? You can get an interlibrary loan.

Many university libraries are part of a regional or national network of libraries. These networks make it possible to access books your library doesn't own. They share resources so that students can find the exact edition they need.

In addition to sending books between libraries, many interlibrary loan services scan articles and provide them as PDFs. And the best part? Interlibrary loan is completely free for students.

iPads and Movies

Many university libraries check out iPads, Kindles, and other electronic devices to students.

At Princeton University, any student can walk up to a circulation desk and check out an iPad for 14 days. Just remember not to drop your iPad in the book drop when it's due.

You can also borrow movies, music, and all kinds of entertainment.

Many libraries even offer streaming services that give Netflix and Hulu a run for their money. At the University of Tennessee Knoxville, for example, students can access 100,000 titles remotely, whether they're in a dorm room or home for summer vacation.

Library Services by Major

Larger universities often have multiple libraries. Your campus might have a law library, a math library, an art library, and an engineering library. Each library provides specialized resources for undergrads and grad students.

Many university libraries also have research librarians for different majors. History majors can reach out to the history specialist for help accessing medieval primary sources.

Most subject librarians hold a master's degree in library science, plus a graduate degree in their specialty area.

Special Collections

Most university libraries have a special collections department. Special collections preserve rare books, maps, and other archival materials. These departments also host exhibits featuring the collections.

What can you find in special collections? Depending on the library, you might find the papers of a famous novelist, medieval illuminated manuscripts, 19th-century photographs, or early printed maps.

It's worth a visit to your campus library's special collections to see what it has to offer.

How to Use the University Library

Whether you're a first-year undergrad or a grad student, make time to visit your campus library. Check out the reading rooms, the study carrels, and the cafe. Find out if your college offers a library tour. And dig into the university library website to learn more about its services.

Many libraries host workshops and events to help students use the collections. They also teach research skills and offer group study rooms. Librarians staff the library daily to answer every question you can think of, from how to use the Dewey Decimal system to the blood types of dogs.

Above all, don't miss out on the opportunity to use the university library. The library is a fantastic resource, and learning how to use it effectively can help you get the most out of your college experience.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare your school options.

View the most relevant school for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to find your college home.