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How to get the most out of a university library--or any library.
Last Updated: Jun 22, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Libraries are like great old grandfather clocks, complete with their own peculiar set of ratchets and wheels, sprockets and springs. Things---that---slow--ly---make---a---li--bra--ry---tick---tock---tick---tock---tick---tock. But unlike grandfather clocks, libraries don’t really tick…you do, when you know their inner workings. If you don’t, time is wasted, if you do, it's well spent.

The Swiss were known the world over for making the finest timepieces, including those for the Swiss Army. The "SQ3R System," developed for the U.S. Army during WWII, is the best of the best when it comes to making knowledge your own. Here's "SQ3R" spelled out.

1. Survey

2. Question

3. Read

4. Recite

5. Review

Check out the book How to Study in College by Walter Pauk, the reading specialist from Cornell University, for a few pages of explanation of these simple steps and you’ll be the Jason Bourne of the library. Like a parkours runner, you'll surmount every intellectual obstacle that comes between you and an author. Understanding what an authority has to say on a subject--his or her area of expertise--is the primary reason you come to an academic library.  To tell you the truth, it's one of the reasons you come to college, to learn what the generations before you have said on a given subject. You come to college also to learn how to learn, and the library is perhaps the best place to do that because the kind of learning that takes place in a library is truly voluntary; it's a matter of your will.  Keep this in mind too, you don't come into a library just to find the answer to your assignment.  You want to focus on the thought process behind the answer.  Surprisingly, the answer is in you not the computer and it will come of its own through the learning process.  Don't be deceived by all the computers in the library, good tools that they are.  "Computers are useless", said Picasso.  "They can only give you answers."  You don't want to be given the answer by a computer any more than you would by your teacher or by a reference librarian for that matter.  Being given the answer misses the whole point of learning.  Your brain is the computer that you should want to "program".  There's nothing magical about the process of finding the answer that lies within you, in fact, you've been dealing with a large part of the process since grade school.  It's called "reading comprehension."  The library is the place to practice turning your uninformed opinion into a well-informed, well-documented conclusion through the process of comprehending what the authorities say on the subject of your assignment.  What is the process of discovering this answer for yourself?  Read on just a little more, I'm coming to it.  It's really quite simple when you think about it.



The process begins with knowing where the authorities are found.  They're found (typically) on the shelves (books) and in the periodical indexes (now online for the most part).  Understanding that the authorities are the ones--the only ones--to consult is a critical aspect of the process.  But with all the authorities in a library, how will you know which ones to consult?  How will you know which ones are relevant to your assignment?  I'm glad you asked that question.  This is what a library's reference collection is for and this is where you begin your journey.  The reference collection will help you adjust your frame of reference on any subject you can think of.  The reference books that make up the reference collection are the tools you use to see farther, reach higher and dig deeper.  Reference books provide you an overview of your subject.  You consult them in order to know who you should consult.  Just like the face of the clock, reference books tell you something.  Imagine not knowing how to read the clock in a train station.  To get the big picture of the subject you're studying, you'll need to know a little something about it first.  Don't rush.  Poring over reference books is time well-spent because your mind is actively engaged.  You'll begin to get a feel for the subject as well as a feel for ferreting out pertinent information on your subject.

The grandfather of all reference books is the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Its 32 volumes are as stately as a grandfather clock.  Don't neglect the two-volume Britannica index.  Scour it, letting your "index" finger scroll down each entry--pregnant with ideas and keywords.  Pay close attention to the bibliographies at the end of each encyclopedia article.  Right now, they're your flashlight in a dark cave.  The great-grandfather of all reference books is Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.  Use it like a trampoline and bounce all over it.  Start with these authoritative works of reference and you can't go wrong.  And like a grandfather clock that chimes on the hour, there's a very real ringing satisfaction you get when you put together the pieces of the puzzle all by yourself.

Once you've determined which authorities to consult, you must read them, of course--and re-read them and read them some more.  You must do the sifting and reviewing. You must learn the art of marshalling facts and taking notes. You must get a firm grasp of the subject at hand. I mean, if you want to hit a baseball out of the park, you must firmly grasp the bat, right?  To the extent that you grasp your subject, the more likely you'll piece together a good rough draft.  Minimize distractions and come to the library with a heart and mind intent on asking, seeking and knocking.  If you haven't already, you'll want to develop the reading habit, a wholesome habit that will support you in more ways than one for the rest of your life.  After all, as Groucho Marx said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.  Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

Don't worry if you can't grasp everything all at once.  None of us can be expected to understand everything we read in an instant.  Wrestling with the authoritative literature, as Jacob did the Angel, takes practice.  It takes patience.  It takes time--no, it takes a lifetime!  It's a process.  I'm a librarian and I'm still learning!  So slowwwww down!  Get with the Slow Movement and prepare yourself for a lifelong journey!  It begins now!  Remember, it's all about time; be conscious of how you use it.  We tend to measure time in nano-seconds when we're young, in years and decades when we reach adulthood and middle-age and when we're old and gray...sheesh!  Libraries, however, measure time in ages!

Guess what? That’s all you need to know.  Yes, pretty much, that's it!  Oh, there's more of course, but that will come, like everything else, with the doing.  If your "clock" stops or winds down while you’re trying to find or consult the authorities, don't worry, we librarians are like the Swiss watchmakers of old: we keep you ticking.  Seek us out.  It's indeed our pleasure to explain to you the inner workings of a library.  While the inner workings of a clock are complicated, a library isn't.  Learning is in the doing, and "the doing" in the library is reading.  Remember, you've been doing this since kindergarten so a lot of this is just "kids' stuff".


Books represent a full and studied treatment of a subject (a monograph) by an authority.  Neglect them at your peril!  You find books using the most fundamental tool found in the library, the catalog.  At one time the catalog was truly the centerpiece of a library.  Space-saving?  No way!  Its sheer girth commanded attention and compelled focus.  Though more efficient, today's online catalog has left the student--and the library--a little out out of focus.  Be that as it may, the content of the old-fashioned catalog and its online replacement is the same only now, you'll need to provide the focus.

THE CATALOG (click here)

Historic photograph taken from the St. Paul Public Library website.



Scholarly articles are also a sustained treatment of a subject, but frequently they represent initial findings on a subject that anticipate further discussion and development by an authority and his/her peers.  This scholarly communication is conducted by means of the periodically-published academic journal.  You access journal articles through the library’s periodical indexes.  Periodical indexes are published in print and electronic format.  Here are some of the most useful electronic indexes.  Just these alone represent over 15,000 electronic academic journal holdings.  That's 15K!!  Most students that I assist find what they need--and more--with just these periodical indexes (what are now being referred to as "databases").  Why go anywhere else?  You may want to limit your search to citations with full-text from academic journals.  If so, then be sure to click those limits.  Also, you may need to use your PBA login if you are accessing these databases from off-campus.

Full text Periodical Indexes (Database List)




Although there is much that is good on the Internet, there is much that is bad, very bad.  You know, you really don’t need to bother with all the glitter and the glut that's found on the Internet when you have the riches of your college library at your feet.  You really don't.  In fact, if you don't have a target URL, your time on the Internet will be misspent.  Yes, it will.  But your library is a living organism that's tailored to your program of studies.  It has what you need.  You just have to take the time to find it.  The jury is still out on the cognitive implications of online reading.  It's true however, that scholarly communication and solid reference works do indeed find their way onto the Wild, Wild Web.  If you must resort to the Internet, I would suggest you use some service such as the Internet Public Library.  It's like a road map to the scholarship found on the Internet. Every Website found through (that’s all you need remember) has passed muster by a garrison of librarians and library school students whose mission, as it relates to the Internet, is to separate the scholars from the scalawags. Check it out.

Internet Public Library


Whatever you do, don't let convenience drive your scholarship.  Scholarship is not a matter of convenience; rather it is a matter of discipline. Convenience charms the undisciplined.  Strive for discipline.  Achieve it, and scholarship will become a way of life and only then will convenience be truly convenient.  Now, may God bless the semester and your sincere and honest endeavors.


Anthony Verdesca
reference librarian

"Get the word out!"


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