Writing papers and preparing for other assignments can take a lot of time. You can probably think of all kinds of other things you’d rather do with your time.
Worse than time spent researching and writing papers is time wasted researching and writing papers. Here’s how to put your time to productive use:
1. Become familiar with the library facilities
At the beginning of each term, the library probably offers guided tours. Take one. If you miss the tour (or even if you don’t), walk into your campus library and look around. Yes, it takes time, but it will save you time later.
The library has various public service areas. If you want to borrow something from the library, you will need to take it to the circulation desk. Do you have to take materials to a person behind the desk? Or is there a self-checkout machine? You need to know.
It used to be that all libraries had a reference desk. Most still do. Some libraries are experimenting with different models of reference service. If there is a reference desk, you need to notice how it is different from the circulation desk. If not, you need to learn how the library delivers reference service.
Find the computer lab. It has computers, peripherals like scanners, and all kinds of software, some of it expensive and/or difficult to learn.
The staff there will show you how to use any of the resources you’re not already comfortable with.
Also, notice locations of other computers throughout the library. You will need them, for example, to access the library catalog and databases.
Elsewhere in the library you need to know where the copiers and printers are, possibly including color copiers and 3D printers. You need to know where to find audiovisual playback equipment, microfilm readers, and whatever else the library has.
The library is probably divided into areas for group study and quiet areas for quiet study. It will have various meeting rooms. You can probably reserve rooms with audiovisual equipment where you can prepare and practice multimedia presentations.
2. Become familiar with the library collection and services
Most academic libraries organize their collection of print materials using the Library of Congress Classification. Some use Dewey Decimal System. In either case, unless the library is very small, the collection is likely to occupy more than one floor. Look for signs that tell you where to find the various parts of the collection.
Somewhere easy to find, the library has a place for recreational reading, including copies of current best sellers. It is not a place for all work and no play! Many libraries also hold regular game nights.
Reference areas, with resources for library use only, are much smaller than they used to be. Most of the information that used to be found in reference books is now available online, but there are still reference materials that exist only in print. For example, the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature is the only way to find articles in magazines that haven’t been digitized.
Speaking of periodicals, some libraries have a special place for bound periodicals. Others integrate them in the stacks with the circulating books, although bound periodicals normally do not circulate.
There still seem to be people who don’t realize that libraries contain much more than books and other printed materials. Libraries have all kinds of cutting-edge technology, including ebooks you can borrow—and ebook readers to check out. You can also check out laptops, tablets, cables, chargers, calculators, recording equipment, cameras, and much more.
Libraries have extensive audiovisual collections. Not everything you might want to watch or listen to exists in the current formats.
You can also still find films (and projectors) and various kinds of tape and discs (and playback equipment) at the library.
The library probably also has printed music, reproductions of artworks, a manuscript collection, and generally a wider variety of materials than is worth trying to describe here.
If a class requires extensive use of particular books or other materials, faculty members will place them on reserve. The reserve collection is probably behind the circulation desk. If you need something on reserve for a class you’re not taking, you can still use it, subject to the library’s reserve policy.
If you need something the library doesn’t own, it has an interlibrary loan office. It will borrow books from other libraries. It will get either photocopies or PDFs of periodical articles that you can keep.
3. Become familiar with the library website
The library website has the library’s hours, a map of the library’s layout, directions for how to find the library, a calendar of events and holiday hours, contact information (both for departments within the library and individual staff members), and so on.
It has the catalog and various databases where you can find online periodicals, dissertations and other information. It will take some time to get used to how to use them. Catalogs and databases don’t work the same way search engines do.
Many databases provide the full text of articles, which you can download or email to yourself. If they don’t have the full text, they’ll have abstracts, or at least citations. You can then look in the catalog to see if the library has the periodical in its print collection or if you will have to ask for interlibrary loan.
You will find subject-specific guides that will save you a tremendous amount of study time. They help you start your research and give you guidance every step of the way to the finished paper or project. They recommend the best resources for the subject, or perhaps even the best resources for a particular class. They explain the proper way to cite sources in your papers.
Through the resources available on the library website, you can use the library from anywhere with an Internet collection. It is not necessary to go to the library building.
4. Ask for help when you need it
I once read a reference librarian‘s incredulous description of a student who sat near a traffic area asking friends if they knew where to find information for an assignment.
When he wasn’t doing that, he was on his cell phone calling other friends.
All the while, he was sitting just steps from the reference desk and waved off more than one attempt by the reference staff to help him.
Reference librarians have special training to help you not only find the information you need, but refine your questions in your own mind. Get in the habit of speaking with them. They can save you an incalculable amount of time.
Reference assistance is available in person (both at the desk and by appointment with a subject specialist), by phone, by email, or by chat. The website will tell you all the ways to get reference help, including the exact contact information and the name and specialty of the entire library staff.
The library exists to serve you, both for serious study and recreational reading and listening. You can’t use services you don’t know about! A half hour or so spent becoming familiar with the library, its collection, and services will save you many hours throughout the rest of the year.
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Circulation desk. Some rights reserved by Newburyport Public Library
Students in computer lab. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Film projector. Source unknown
Reference interview. Some rights reserved by AASU Armstrong University Archives.