How to Make Effective Use of a Library

Though it might sound strange, many people have forgotten about using the library. Because many libraries now offer their collections online, many people are forgoing the library in favor of heading to their computers. While this makes sense for those who might not be in driving distance of a high quality library, this also means many people are forgetting how to use a library.

When you walk into a library, there are many resources at your fingertips. You just need to know what to use, how to use it, and when to ask for help.
Orient yourself. If you have not been to a library in a while, you need to orient yourself again. Most libraries are arranged in a similar pattern, so this section will help you learn more about your local library as well.
  • New Books section: When you walk into a library, one of the first displays you might see is the New Books section. This is where the latest books are on display so that visitors can find them easily. Here, you might find the latest nonfiction books to support your research topic.
  • Special display cases and tables: Sometimes there will be special displays during holiday seasons or when an author comes out with a new book in a series.
  • Adult fiction: A large section, the adult fiction section is a place where you can find books arranged by the author's last name.
  • Non-fiction and reference books: If you are looking for the reference section, you will want to seek out nonfiction. This area is going to be arranged by the Dewey Decimal system.
  • Card catalogs: You might also notice there are card catalogs or computers that will allow you to find the books you need. These catalogs might allow you to search by title, author, or subject, depending on your question.

If you have not been to the library in a few years, simply take a moment to walk around first so you can go to the section you need without wasting time.

Ideally, you will go to the computers or the card catalogs to search for the books you need, write down their numbers or authors, and then move into the sections to find the books on the shelves.

Different Types of Libraries to Use

Depending on the topic you need to research, you might find that different libraries might serve you better. Many people do not realize it, but there is more than one type of library in most cities.

Other libraries include:

  • Public: This library is the typical library, funded by tax dollars and working to make sure the local community has the books it needs without having to charge anyone to read them.
  • Academic: If you need to research something that is more complicated, heading to an academic library might be a wise choice. These libraries are often specifically tailored to one subject. For example, you might go to a medical school library when researching a health-related topic. Other possible academic libraries include engineering, nursing, law, etc.
  • School: While universities and colleges have their own libraries, many other schools and grade levels do, too. Depending on the research you need to do, you might not be able to use these libraries because they may not have the items you need in order to successfully research your topic. Think about your topic and what you need to find before you head to a library for younger students.
  • Miscellaneous libraries: There are other libraries that are also available in your local surroundings, though you might need to call to see if you can use them. For example, if you need to research a local company, you might be able to see their personal library for reports, statistics, financial records, etc.

Think about the topic you need to cover and what this might mean in terms of where you need to be for your research. In most cases, a public library will work well, but when you need to access cutting edge information, the universities offer a wider collection of resource materials.

The New Computer Systems

You may not have used the card catalog system before, so the computer systems are more familiar to use. Set up to be accessible for anyone, these computers offer a wealth of information.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Basic Research Skills course?

To make sure you can find what you are looking for, here are some tips to make the computers help you more effectively:

  • Have titles in mind. If you are heading to the library, it never hurts to have the titles you want in your mind already. This will allow you to easily type in the title names and then begin to use the books for your personal research. Double-check the title names before you leave for the library.
  • Know author names. If you do not know the titles, perhaps you know the names of authors and experts in the field. These will be easy to input into the computer to see what you can find.
  • Pick out keywords. When you are researching a specific subject, try to choose one to five keywords that come up frequently in the literature. For example, if you research "weight loss," you might also type in "diet." Have this list of keywords available to find as many related books as possible.
  • Have a question. Before you walk into the library, have a question or two that you are trying to answer. This will focus your research and allow you to make the most of your time.
  • Bring related book titles. If you already have done some research elsewhere, bring those titles along with you. Even if you already have those books at home, look for them in the library and then look to the right and the left of the book on the shelf. More often than not, those adjacent books will offer you additional ideas and information about your topic.
  • Use a notepad. As you walk along, make sure to bring your notepad. This will keep track of the numbers and letters you need to find for each book or topic you research. The more numbers you have, the more you will head in the proper direction when you are in the library.

Using the library is easy and it only takes a little direction from you in order to fully realize how many books can help you with your topic of study.

Ask the Librarian

At times, you may not know where to begin with a research topic. Though you might have basic research skills, if you are not sure where to go or what questions to ask, it can help to bring in a third party who is not attached to your research: the librarian.

Librarians are trained to help people find the books they need or the topics they are interested in. By talking to librarians about what you want and what you need to cover in your research, they may be able to point out additional resources you had not yet considered.

When you talk with the librarian, it can help to:

  • have book titles that have been helpful to you. If you already have found helpful books, show the librarian so she or he can look for similar books in the stacks.
  • have a question you need to answer. Yes, it can help to have a question in mind when you talk to librarians. They will help you answer it.
  • introduce the problem you have. When you have a problem with your research, be clear about what you are being troubled by. Chances are good the librarian can point you in a better direction.

The librarians are there to help you with your research. They have gone to school and received a master's degree in library sciences to learn how to use the reference materials and how to ensure that you find the answers you need.

Talking to Other Libraries

One of the best innovations of the library system is that you can now communicate with other libraries in the same way that librarians can. If you go to a computer terminal and you find a book you want, but it is not at that library, you can have the book sent to your home library.

Or you can have that book put on hold for you and then go to the other library to retrieve it. You are no longer limited to the shelves that you have in your community library.

Remember, you can:

  • request to put an item on hold;
  • request that a book be transferred to your library;
  • renew a book you already have out;
  • find out how long it might be until a book comes back into circulation.

The library system is designed to help you get the book you want as quickly as possible. You can take control of the process by telling the computer what you want it to do with the books you need.