Library 101: Everything You Need to Know to Utilize Your Library

A librarian holding books in front of a bookcase and smiling down at them

Do you want to be a library super-user? Libraries are some of the most magical places on earth, but they can also be a bit intimidating if you’re unfamiliar with the lingo. We have a guide to common library terminology that will help you make the most of your experience—whether you’re a newbie or a frequent patron. Each library is different and we encourage you to reach out to your local branch to learn more about their resources, funding, and how you can support them. 


Basic Library Terminology

If your library has a circulation desk or department, this is usually where you check out items, renew your library card, or update your account information. You may hear library workers mention how many times an item has “circulated,” meaning how many times it’s been checked out from the library.


The reference desk or department specializes in research, instruction, and information literacy. Library workers in the reference department can help you with all your research needs like using library databases, learning about a specific topic, understanding sources, and more! This desk is often staffed by librarians with training in online resources, searching tactics, and information about local sources. 


Libraries aren’t just about books—they also put on monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily events! Your library may have a specific set of programming staff just for planning and running events. Library workers put a lot of thoughtful research, time, and effort into creating events for their communities (like author series, book clubs, and more!) Check out your library’s calendar for an event that may interest you. 


The “stacks” refers to the shelves that house the library’s physical collections. 


The library catalog is where you look up items in your library’s collection. You can discover if a book is already in the collection, on order, being processed, or even if it’s in repair. Sometimes items need a little bit of mending after being checked out hundreds of times and library staff can temporarily take an item out of circulation while they repair the binding or fix a label. The catalog is your first stop to see if the book on your TBR is available, checked out, a digital resource only, or something you need to find at one of the library desks or special locations.  


Some libraries have multiple locations in their system. They will often have a main library or a headquarters for the system and then the smaller libraries are referred to as “branch” libraries. 


Books & Resources

Do you want to guarantee that a book will be waiting for you on your next trip to the library? Many libraries let you place a “hold” on items in the collection so you can ensure that you’re next in line for them.


You can request that your library purchase a book or make a suggestion for a title or resource that you would like to see if it’s not currently in the collection. Some library systems pre-order titles months in advance while others may purchase them closer to the publication date. Once you get a feel for when titles are available, you can request books that they haven’t included in the collection yet. Check out your library’s website or catalog for a request form. 


Suspend Holds
Do you get overwhelmed when all of your holds come in at once? Many library systems allow you to suspend your holds so you can avoid that overwhelming TBR. You can stagger their dates, suspend them all if you’re going to be out of town, or pause if you’re not in the mood to read a certain genre this month. 


Interlibrary Loan (ILL)
Your library may get books from other libraries, including public, academic, and even special libraries if the item is not available in your system. Libraries all over the country participate in this service or sometimes they have smaller regional agreements that allow patrons to borrow books from outside of their own library. Ask your library or check their website for more information about special services. 


Collection Development
This is the process that library workers complete for selecting, acquiring, and weeding (getting rid of books that are outdated, in poor condition, or just not filling a community’s needs anymore) materials. Libraries carefully consider what items to purchase for their communities based on check-out stats, interests, reviews, and requests from patrons. Library workers also thoughtfully choose items to weed. Discarded items often go to book sales, get repurposed for projects or donations, or are discarded or recycled if they are too damaged. Weeding processes allow for your library’s collection to have room for new and engaging materials for your community. 


Library of Things

Need a tool or a baking pan that you’ll probably only use once? Check your library before you buy one! Many libraries now have a “Library of Things” that spans items from board games to sewing machines to kitchen gadgets. Check your library’s website to learn more about their special collections. 


Digital Resources
Libraries have so much more than just physical books, they also have a wealth of digital materials! To find these materials look for “ebooks,” “databases,” or “online resources” on your library’s website. Ask your local library about any hidden gems from their online resources, you might find free access to larger newspapers or an archive of digitized yearbooks!

Libraries have to pay for subscriptions to digital resources and sometimes they can be very costly for library systems. Not every library has the same budget or can afford the same level of subscriptions so you may find different resources based on your library’s funding. Here are a few common digital resources that you can take advantage of with a library card: 


Hoopla & Libby
A digital library of books, comics, movies, TV shows, music, and more! Hoopla features items that are always available and do not have a hold or waiting period, while Libby features items that have single-use licenses so you may have to wait or place a hold for an item. 


A digital resource that features movies, documentaries, and other media to stream. 


A music library with albums and songs that you can download and take on the go. 


Get Involved

Looking for a way to clean out your bookshelves? Many libraries accept book donations! Ask your library about their donations policy before heading to the library. Some libraries can only accept certain types of book or media donations or only accept them during specific time periods. Donations usually go to the library book sale as a way to fundraise for the library, and some donations may actually make it into the collection. Tip: Don’t be that person who leaves a big pile of old encyclopedias outside of a library book return. Always follow their guidelines for donations. 


Friends of the Library
The Friends of the Library is a volunteer organization that provides funds and support for the library system. The Friends of the Library often run book sales, donation drives, and special events in order to provide funding for library programming and services. Many libraries could not provide the level of programming, materials, and resources that they do without the work of the Friends. Check out your local library to learn more about their volunteer groups. 


Library Board
A group of elected or appointed individuals who work closely with the Library Director on library policies, funding decisions, and strategic plans. Library Board members represent and advocate for the community and the library’s best interests. You can find more information about Library Boards, including their meeting minutes, agendas, and upcoming issues they’ll be discussing on your library’s website. Participating on a Library Board or attending a meeting is a great way to get involved and advocate for your library and community. 


What’s your most-utilized resource that your local library offers? 

Hallie Fields

Hallie Fields is the Assistant Manager of Social Media at NetGalley. She is a former librarian with 10 years of library experience. Most recently, she was a Teen Services Librarian at a public library where she specialized in collection development and building teen programming. Hallie loves chatting about books, crafting, and visiting libraries.

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