• Abbie Tibbott

University Libraries: Six Tips for Successful Research

Libraries, especially academic ones, are intimidating at first. There, I said it! Libraries where I’m from are full of angsty teen fiction and dodgy computers, and my school libraries were basically computer rooms with a few bookshelves, so not exactly great practice for the future.

When I got to university, I was sad that I honestly didn’t know how to use an academic library properly and felt like it might backfire on me. The library at my university is several floors with books at every turn, and I had no idea how to find anything! My courses relied a lot on my ability to actually find books that were useful, so I was worried that I would quickly fall behind. Thankfully, I soon discovered that most people felt that same as me (thanks UK education system) and after some practice, I soon started to find research considerably easier. Now, I’d love nothing more than to be back in the library with a stack of books, a coffee and my laptop, so I guess you can call me a changed person. I thought that if anyone is heading to university this September, some wisdom on how to make a library feel more welcoming might be appreciated, so I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks to help you feel right at home!

1. Take the tour

Lots of universities (thankfully) seem to have realised that a lot of students have never accessed a traditional academic library before, so lay on workshops and tours to help students get acclimatised. I attended one of these short tours at my library in the second week of freshers. I was hungover, tired and over-socialised, but it had been recommended by my department at a welcome talk, so I decided to give it a go. During the tour, we were shown how to enter the library (don’t forget your student ID if you want to be a library-dweller), how to place books on hold, how to use the online catalogue and which floors held which books. The online catalogue was intimating to use at first, but after a few tries it began to feel a little more friendly. This short orientation answered a lot of my big questions about how to research and made the building more approachable. I’d recommend that you find an afternoon during your first few weeks at university and book yourself onto some sort of library tour, as it’s much more acceptable to have no idea how to use the library at the beginning of term, rather than two weeks before your first deadline!

2. Go often, get lost less

Book cataloguing systems vary by library, but you’ll begin to notice a pattern in where your books are located, whether that be by floor or by section. I used to go and pick up books frequently, and over time I became faster at knowing where I needed to go. I’d use the online search and write down the call number (catalogue number) of my books beforehand, so I wasn’t wandering around aimlessly. My library has a lot of helpful maps and graphics on each floor to serve as a guide, which I still use if I’m searching an unfamiliar section. Learning the layout and ordering of books makes researching so much quicker, and you’ll thank yourself in a few years when you’re going through books at a rapid rate.

3. Ask for help, don’t struggle in silence

Library staff aren’t as formidable as the media makes them seem! They’re passionate individuals who are only too happy to help students who are unfamiliar with a library environment. Some universities have dedicated librarians attached to each subject, which is fantastic as if you are missing certain literature or want to request the purchase of additional copies, they will be happy to help. They can also help with online access to archives and even order books from other institutions, completely free of charge, which is a big help when you’re on a budget. I found this service really useful when I wrote my BA dissertation, as I was able to borrow books from the British Library and have them delivered to me. Even if you’re just looking for a certain book, staff will point you in the right direction, and equally will assist you with technical problems such as a faulty card, library fines and access to certain materials.

4. Create a sensible bibliography

Whatever you’re researching for, I’d always recommend bringing with you a list of books that you believe are the key texts you wish to include in your assignment. Coming prepared helps to stop the sheer number of books from being too intimidating and prevents you from overwhelming yourself with reading. If you’re new to university, it’s all too easy to over-read, read random things or get completely side-tracked. I’ve definitely made those mistakes, and it wastes valuable time, especially with all the fun things you want to do in your first year. Picking books off a shelf without some prior thought isn’t my recommended method. Instead, use reading lists that are provided or make your own using citations from texts discussed in seminars. Once you’ve read that first stack of books, look through indexes and footnotes to direct you to more books, or ask friends for their recommendations.

5. Come prepared, study in the right environment

Some people really don’t like studying with other people in the library, but that doesn’t mean you need to avoid it altogether. If you hate the environment, make sure that you’re still coming in to collect and exchange books, and that you’re not avoiding the biggest resource on campus. I knew people during undergrad that would avoid the library and rely on eBooks. Not a bad method entirely but if you do a subject like history, not everything will be digitized, and there may be texts in the library that are out print or just too expensive to buy. Those people often missed out on the top grades as their research just wasn’t good enough! Don’t let this be you, make use of the books even if you don’t like the building.

If you do love the environment, join the club! The library is my favourite place to study, especially as my library has been completely refurbished over the past couple of years, so is fit for the modern world. I always come prepared with my student ID, a list of books, any books to take back, and a water bottle. My laptop is my constant companion, but I like reading hard copies over eBooks as it gives my eyes a break from the screen. As a postgrad I often studied alone, preferring silent study with minimal distractions, but as an undergrad I loved group study spaces which meant I could work alongside friends. Your taste in library environment may evolve, but libraries have plenty of space to accommodate different types of researchers .

6. Be a good library user, bring your books back!

Library fines will stack up, so make sure you return books on time or renew them to keep them for a bit longer. If you’re finished with a text, try and make the effort to remember your book the next time you head onto campus, and drop it back on the way past the library. This not only gives others the chance to use it, but also saves you a trip onto campus just to deposit books. Cancel holds if you no longer need them, and make sure that you aren’t damaging library books. I’m also not a fan of people writing in books either, it’s a pet peeve of mine for sure. If you want to annotate, request an eBook or hunt online for a pdf that you can use, don’t deface the books unless you own them. If you find a book that is damaged or missing any pages, please report it at the front desk, and an alternate copy should be sourced for you. Keep food and water away from your books and treat them with respect!

So, there you have it, six tips for feeling right at home at your university library. I hope these were helpful! If you’re studying a humanities subject, libraries will become your best friend, and the one at your university will serve as a starting point for when you need to access archives in the future.

Happy researching!