Start off your studies strong
Being a first-year student is difficult enough when you don’t have a pandemic going on around you. You have to navigate a new environment, fulfill new expectations, and plan out your studies for yourself. You’re trying to make new friends and live up to the tougher demands of your coursework. Without the rigidity of a high school class schedule, you have to plan your time. It’s a steep learning curve.
If you’re starting college this fall, it may seem like everything is different from how you expected it to be. Depending on where you’re located you may be having classes in person but with masks and other restrictions. Or you might be logging on from home and learning remotely. Thankfully, there are still some things that are the same. Just as always, you will have to attend class (even if online), study hard, and complete homework, papers, and exams. And to help you with that, this year, as in any year, it pays to get to know your campus library already in your first semester.
“The library? Isn’t that just a place to go find books and drink coffee?”, I can hear you asking yourself. Of course, the library is a place to get books and study while sipping a latte , but it’s also so much more! Academic libraries offer a number of services to help you out – both on campus and online. They’re often underutilized by new students, but getting familiar with them now will help you throughout the entire course of your studies. We’ve created a helpful list below of what you should get to know.
- Take a tour
First and foremost, we recommend taking a tour of your library. Sometimes this will be mandatory through one of your courses, but even if it isn’t, it’s a good idea to do it on your own. If your library is closed due to COVID or if you just want to limit your exposure to other people, check your library’s webpage to see if a virtual tour is offered. The tour will give you an overview of the services your library offers, and you’ll learn what you need to know to get started, such as how to set up a library card, find resources, and get help. You’ll also find out where you can meet for group work (either in a virtual meeting room or on-site) and where the quiet study spaces are for those times when you really need to concentrate.
- Get to know the library website
Practicing research skills right from the start is a good habit to get into. When you have to find sources for an essay or paper, it can be tempting to go straight to Google. Unfortunately, internet searches mean you’ll have to evaluate everything more carefully. Why not instead search a curated collection of scholarly sources? This in essence is what your library catalog offers you. On the main page, you’ll usually find a search bar. Unlike Google, when you search here you will find academic books, ebooks, online journal articles, and other electronic resources that your university has paid for you to be able to access. You won’t have to spend as much time sifting through and evaluating results since you’re starting with the type of high-quality sources your professors expect you to use.
The library catalog search bar you find on the main page of the website searches across many different resources – the actual holdings of your library (books, print journals and other materials) and databases. Databases help you find peer-reviewed journal articles on a topic that you’re researching. While there are a few generalist databases (Academic Search is a good one for undergraduates), most are specific to a particular topic. It can sometimes be useful to search these databases directly rather than just use the all-in-one search on your library website, since you will have additional filter and search options and you can more easily ensure that the results match your topic and subject area. For example, if your topic is global warming, you will find thousands of results using your library’s all-in-one search. But, if you’re researching global warming for an economics course, you can instead search an economics database and instantly narrow down your results and get articles that are more relevant.
In your first couple of years of university, you may not need to use databases very often, but they will become more and more important as you advance and especially if you later go on to graduate school. Getting used to working with them from the beginning can help give you a leg up later on.
Another resource you may not need much at the beginning of your studies but that will be helpful later on are subject guides. Subject guides are put together by librarians for a particular course or topic. They give you a collection of databases, books, and websites that are good places to research a particular topic. If you ever have a paper topic and aren’t getting good results from a search in the main catalog, look for a subject guide on your topic or subject area and then try searching some of the resources there.
Last but not least, many academic libraries offer reference management tools, such as Citavi. Reference management software makes it easier to cite your sources and create bibliographies for your papers. However, it’s still important to know the basics of how to cite when you use them and not just rely on them to magically format everything correctly. For this reason, I personally would recommend not using this software for your first one or two papers. Instead, work with the style guide from your professor and type up your citations and the bibliography by hand, making sure to check them over a few times before turning them in. Even though it’s tedious, it will help you develop an eye for what information needs to be included and how important consistency in punctuation is. When you then later work with a reference management app, you’ll be better able to add sources and will be better at double-checking the output. For more tips on how to avoid problems with reference management software, see this earlier blog post.
- Know where to get help
Many undergraduate students are often either too shy or too proud to ask for help from university staff members they don’t know when they don’t know how to do something. Or, they just don’t know who can help them. Add to this the commonly held belief that “librarians just sit around reading books all day” and you can see why many students don’t think to go to librarians when they have trouble finding a book, finding a journal article, or if they don’t know where or how to start a search for sources on a particular topic.
This is a shame, since librarians are highly trained and knowledgeable professionals. For example, in the United States, librarians need to have a Master’s degree and many university librarians will often have a second Master’s degree or even a PhD in a second area of study. They are highly knowledgeable about how to find good sources of information and how to conduct a search. Even if you think you’re good at searching the catalog, a librarian can likely show you a couple strategies you wouldn’t have known to find better matches for your topic.
If your university is open as normal, you can get help from librarians directly at a “Reference” or “Information” desk. A lot of libraries will have one desk for more basic service-related questions (i.e. where to find copiers, where to check out books) and another for more in-depth questions that require a librarian, so make sure to mention what type of question you have, and you should get pointed to the right place. Never feel that you are being a bother by asking a question – librarians like to help students.
If your university is currently in session virtually, chances are that librarian support is also available online. Take a look at the “Contact” section of the library website to see what options you have to get help. When the library is closed, you often can still get help via online chat, phone or even messaging services such as WhatsApp.
- Take advantage of technical resources
Many students still think of the library primarily as a place to check out books, but they also offer a lot of technical resources as well.
First, nearly all libraries will offer a way to print and scan at a reasonable price or for free. Librarians are also happy to help you figure out how to use the equipment.
Beyond that, there are also many specialized tech resources that you can check out, such as laptops or e-readers. More and more libraries are also offering media labs, which can be booked for recording audio or video or using a 3D printer. Learning how to use the equipment and software in these labs can help you gain valuable skills for your future career.
- Take a class or attend an event
Speaking of gaining valuable skills, did you know that most university libraries offer in-person and online classes? Taught by experts, the classes offered by your library can help you learn important life and research skills. They cover topics such as how to find and evaluate information, how to avoid plagiarism, how to search databases, and how to use reference management software. Attending some of these courses during your first year of university – even before you might need them – can help you research better and more efficiently for the rest of your university career.
In addition, many libraries also hold talks or film series on interesting topics. Professors at the university might present their findings to the campus community, the special collections department might showcase artistically designed books from the collection, or a well-known author might visit to discuss her new book. Especially if as a first-year student you don’t yet know what to major in, attending talks like these can help you discover topics you might never would have considered otherwise. Also, many of these events, such as a film series or concert, are simply a lot of fun.
Your university library likely offers many more resources that what we’ve listed here, but these are some of the places to start if you’re a new student – or if you’re a returning student who just hasn’t ever used the library much yet. We recommend starting with this list but then continuing to explore and keep an eye out for new possibilities. Always remember that it’s the library’s job to support you in your research activities, even if you’re “just” an undergraduate student doing your first projects. Take advantage of what they offer, and you’ll not only be able to hand in a great research paper, you just might also come away with some skills that will help you in your future career.