Academic libraries and how they differ from public libraries

academic library exterior

Walter Science and Technology Library, one of 14 in the University of Minnesota Libraries

In a sense, a library is a library. Public libraries, academic libraries, school libraries, and special libraries exist to connect people with the information they need.

Once upon a time, that information was all printed, except for libraries that owned manuscript collections.

The explosion of new formats—sound recordings, film and video recordings, and all manner of electronic media—has affected every kind of library.

Still, there are important differences between public and academic libraries. The following two lists by no means adequately describe either public or academic libraries, but they serve to show the contrast.

Public libraries

  • Public libraries exist to serve the needs of the entire community from school children to the elderly.
  • Public library non-fiction collections rarely have highly specialized materials, either in their book collection, periodicals collection, or electronic databases.
  • Fiction is at the heart of a public library collection. It is so important that public reference service includes “readers’ advisory” to help patrons find books that they would enjoy reading. Readers’ advisors must be well versed in literature, romance novels, mysteries, suspense, and many other types of fiction.
  • “Media” collections—all those various kinds of recordings and films—are just as heavily weighted toward entertainment.
  • If a city is large enough to have different library branches, their collections all offer the same broad range of subject matter.

Academic libraries

  • Academic libraries serve the educational objectives of a college or university.
  • Therefore they exist to serve the needs of students and faculty.
  • While academic libraries offer a wide variety of fiction, popular movies, and other entertainment, the collection primarily exists to serve the educational objectives of the various departments on campus.
  • At universities with graduate programs, the collection (including databases) must include the latest research and the most technical information in certain fields.
  • Many academic libraries are research libraries, meaning that they must supply their faculty and doctoral students with the information to support research projects that advance human knowledge.
  • If the library has branch libraries, each branch will be devoted to a special subject, such as law, medicine, architecture, music, etc.

A brief history of American academic libraries

academic library students studying

Wendt Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In colonial times, and indeed until the middle of the 19th century, colleges and universities for all practical purposes did not have libraries.

They had very few books, and their academic programs did not use what they had. There was no regular appropriation for acquiring books.

Students formed literary societies to acquire books for their own use. Some colleges had multiple competing societies. In any case, the societies’ collections were of greater interest than what the institution owned.

Anything we would recognize as a public library didn’t yet exist, either. Benjamin Franklin helped establish a subscription library in Philadelphia in 1731. Such libraries existed to serve anyone who paid for membership. Later in the century, some booksellers established circulating libraries that basically rented books to people.

The first real public library, Boston Public Library, was founded in 1854. From that time, librarianship began to be recognized as a profession. By the time the American Library Association was founded in 1876, college and universities had begun to establish libraries of their own—often by acquiring the collections of the student literary societies.

The last half of the 19th century saw a drastic restructuring of American higher education. A system of college majors, elective courses, and post-graduate education based on German models created a need for a centralized library collection capable of supporting the curriculum. Colleges and universities appropriated funds annually to grow the collection.

Charles William Eliot, when he was president of Harvard University, declared the library “the heart of the university.” And it literally was. Typically the college’s library building was in the middle of campus in order to be conveniently located for everyone.

College enrollment skyrocketed after the Second World War. Part of it went to a new kind of institution, the community college. Much of it, though, went to greatly expanded post-graduate programs.

Research by the rapidly growing faculty at research institutions led to exponential grown of new knowledge, indeed, entire new disciplines. Library collections had to keep up. They had to acquire not only books, but an equally rapidly growing number of specialized journals.

Public libraries had relied on the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature to keep track of important magazine and journal articles since the beginning of the 20th century.

During this rapid growth in knowledge and specialization, it no longer met the needs of academic libraries. Some more technical bibliographic services already existed. Chemical Abstract began publication in 1907. Comparable services in all disciplines began to come into existence in the post-war period.

The explosion of new media that I mentioned earlier began at about the same time. Academic libraries began to work together and established a system of interlibrary loan. That enabled each library to concentrate on comprehensive development of a limited amount of the collection. They could lend that to other libraries and in turn borrow what they chose not to collect as heavily.

Academic and public libraries transformed–differently

Students in a computer lab

Students in a computer lab

The Internet began in 1969 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Four universities collaborated on it.

The word Internet, though, did not come into wide use until 1982.

The World Wide Web did not exist until 1989. The first useful web browser was introduced only in 1993.

It’s hardly possible to call academic libraries “the heart of the university” any more. That’s not because they have become any less important. But it’s no longer even necessary to go to the library in order to use it.

Anyone in the university community can log on to the library’s website from anywhere. There they’ll find a catalog of the library’s entire collection. Of course, they must still visit the library in person in order to borrow books or use printed journals.

But all of the periodicals databases are also available online. Many of them enable students, staff, and faculty to read the full text of an article online or email it to themselves as a PDF.

That’s students, staff, and faculty. Most of these databases are extraordinarily expensive, and academic institutions do not allow free online access to anyone outside their own community unless they are physically present.

By this time many public libraries make some databases available to their card-holding patrons, but again, not just anyone. No public library subscribes to the specialized databases that academic libraries must have in order to perform their functions.

Joanne R. Euster, “The academic library: its place and role in the institution” pp. 1-13 in Academic libraries: their rationale and role in American higher education, edited by Gerard B. McCabe and Ruth J. Person (Greenwood Press, 1995)
How did public libraries get started? / The Straight Dope

Photo credits:
Walter Library. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Wendt Library. Some rights reserved by Wendt Commons.
Students in computer lab. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.


Academic libraries and how they differ from public libraries — 5 Comments

  1. I notice this was published July 25th, and imagine it was an explanation to the individual or group (?) responsible for the absurdity in the Duncan Banner July 30th. Thanks.

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