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Information Literacy Concepts : Chapter 1

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How Libraries Work


How Libraries Work

We can always benefit from knowing a little more about how our campus libraries operate.  Understanding the different roles the library and librarians play on your campus can help us to ask better informed questions and go deeper in our search for relevant and high quality information.  Campus libraries are always changing to accommodate new technologies and the evolving needs of the students and faculty who use them, but the core functions of libraries remain mostly unchanged.


Circulation is a major department in any library, though it will sometimes be called the access services department.  Circulation provides students with the means to access a library’s collections, meaning that they check books in and out and maintain borrower records.  These borrower records, or library accounts, are usually only available to circulation staff.  In other words, if we have any questions about our library account, or want to check books in or out, or want to pay or contest a fine, Circulation is who can help.

Circulation may have other services as well.  Course reserves are usually kept here, as is the technology (cameras, microphones, laptops, etc.) that your library may loan out.


Reference librarians assist students with locating relevant information for their projects.  They can also (often) track down answers to especially challenging questions.  Your library’s reference department will probably have a service desk where you can ask question and talk to librarians. 

Besides offering one-on-one assistance with research, reference librarians may also teach library instruction classes on your campus.  If you are uncertain about the best places to look for information on a given topic, ask a reference librarian.  Typically academic libraries will have librarians with specialized areas of expertise, so expect your library to have a business librarian, a STEM librarian, and so on.

Archives and Special Collections

Most large libraries will maintain special collections.  These collections may be based on particular themes, often with a focus on local history.  Special collections are often comprised of primary documents.  These primary sources may be letters or old photographs, drafts of a poet’s works, or the correspondence of a notable scholar or politician.

Technical and Discovery Services

Technical services largely refers to acquisitions and cataloging, with the former purchasing books and journals for the library and the latter integrating them into the collection.  You will rarely see these librarians, as they typically have no public service role, but they make up a big part of staff in any large library.  The search (discovery) tools themselves also require time and staff to develop and maintain, so your library will also have staff devoted to operating and improving the library catalog interface and whatever other local discovery tools are available for research.

Services You Can Expect

Your library may have a print collection with thousands or even millions of volumes--it may provide you with instant access to millions of electronic articles and books.  But no library owns every title.  You may need some seminal work on your topic--or perhaps just the next book in a series you are reading for pleasure--that is not part of your local library’s collection.  This does not mean that the item is unavailable to you.  Expect your library to have an interlibrary loan service to help fill in the inevitable gaps in its collections.

Interlibrary loan services borrow the materials we need from other libraries and make them available to us.  Some requests can be filled quickly.  For example, if you need an article, it may take only a day or two for the library to fill the request.  A book may take a week.  Rare titles may take longer.  Some interlibrary loan programs are free of charge, others may require a small fee.  Some programs will request media on your behalf, while other may not.  Your library’s interlibrary loan program should have their policies clearly stated on their web site.

Also expect your library to offer special programming throughout the year.  This might include exhibits and displays, guest speakers and lecture series, workshops, or even exam time stress relievers.  For example, game nights are popular at some libraries during exam periods.  Other libraries may offer yoga, pet therapy events, or snacks.