The Importance of the College Library

When visiting a campus one of the last places most students want to see is the library, or, depending on the size of the school, the library system.  Neglecting the library, however, is a big mistake.

Many of the main benefits students derive in college are associated with the library. Outside of class, most students spend their time in the dormitory, cafeteria, the gym, or in the library. Students generally sleep or socialize in the dorms, eat in the cafeteria, work out in the gym, and study and exchange insights in the library.

Students do their homework collaboratively in the carrels and study rooms of the library. Indeed, libraries are noting student use patterns and are attempting to accommodate by offering an inviting environment.  Brown University librarian, Harriette Hemmassi notes, “…we’ve made our library spaces more inviting, more personal. When you come in, you get the sense that someone cares about you as a student in that environment…That’s really important. It becomes sort of a home away from home.”

More than ever, students are conducting honor’s theses and independent research projects and other substantive academic work. In essence, this involves meeting in a faculty mentor’s office or laboratory, and spending research time in the library delving into archives, digital resources, using specialized search engines or accessing the expertise of a trained research librarian.

So what do you want to look for when touring a campus’s library? I It isn’t a bad idea to meet some of the library staff. No need to be shy; virtually every library I’ve been in is extremely service oriented: they’ll love to talk with you. Come with an outline of a hypothetical project you want to know more about (such as the  likely future of teleporting—as seen on Star Trek with ‘beam me up Scottie”) and see where they might direct your search. If you’re in a mid-sized to large university, such as Lehigh University, and you start in the Linderman Library, which is humanities oriented, you will probably be directed to the Fairchild-Martindale library, which houses the science and engineering collections. Though, of course, before you trek there, they might direct you to Lehigh’s digital library, and since Lehigh has an Open Library Environment (OLE) it has access to all sorts of third party sources.

You also might learn how much the library works with the faculty to enrich course content. If there is a strong bond between the faculty and its library, chances are when you attend the school, you’re going to be able to access invaluable assistance when researching a paper, or appraising the feasibility of a project.

Take a moment to survey the atmosphere and aesthetics of the library. The main library and its axillary buildings are places where you’ll be spending a lot of time. Do you find them attractive? Possibly you prefer the Romanesque Revival architecture of UCLA’s Powell library, the English Gothic style of Boston College’s Bapst library, or the neo-Greco interior of Johns Hopkins’ George Peabody Library. You can see an interesting cross section of some of the ’16 Coolest College Libraries’.

Size used to hold sway over where scholars elected to attend. Harvard has nearly 17 million volumes, and its imposing Widener Library contains sub-basements interconnected with tunnels to its sister libraries throughout Cambridge. Altogether, according to, A Guide to the Harvard University Library, Harvard’s collections "are housed in over 90 libraries, most located in Cambridge and Boston, but others as distant as Washington, D.C., and Florence, Italy." The four largest libraries are rounded out with the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Yale, and UC Berkeley, with over 11 million volumes. Within the UC System there is California Digital Library (CDL) and a UC Shared Print program. Access to millions of volumes, no matter where you are in the UC System, is possible.  

In any case, to know a campus, one really should know its libraries. The savvy applicant will make it a point on college visits to bring along some school work, find a spot in the library (or libraries) and spend a couple of hours to get a taste of the place.