General Education

Try These Strange and Useful Tools at Your University Library

Try These Strange and Useful Tools at Your University Library
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Tyler Miller profile
Tyler Miller October 16, 2014

University libraries are for more than just books. Check out some of the weird and wonderful resources you can check out at your university library.

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Every college student knows about the basics available at the library: books, magazines, newspapers, movies, music. But how well do you really know your college library?

Check out these often overlooked services found at most college libraries:

Interlibrary Book Loans

Campus libraries are part of a larger academic library system. Thanks to systems like Interlibrary Loan and WorldCat, you have access to far more than just the books on your campus. In theory you have access to any book in any library in the world.

As an added bonus, your college library picks up the shipping fee. My wife once ordered a novel she couldn’t wait to read. It came through WorldCat all the way from Australia, which happened to be the nearest library with a copy. And it came for free.

Technology Galore

You’re probably aware that you can check out laptops at most campus libraries. There’s usually a steady stream of students lined up for them. But did you know most libraries also have an array of other devices?

You may be able to borrow video recorders, headphones, movie projectors, iPods, digital cameras, and underwater video equipment. If you want to try out a particular device, chances are your library will have at least one available for you to use.

Government Documents

Did you know that the American government is the biggest publisher in America?

College libraries are the main repository for governmental documents. These range from paperbound reports of the daily happenings in Congress to hardbound statistical analyses conducted by government agencies. The wealth of information is staggering.

When I worked at the JFK Library at Eastern Washington University, I managed the government document section. It was the least used section of the library — aside from our extensive collection of old-timey LPs.

While not exactly a thrilling read, government documents remain the greatest collection of scientific studies, statistical data, and meticulously kept historical records. In addition, government documents are a provider of endless reams of maps from every era.

Special Collections

College libraries are also repositories for unique collections of rare books, diaries, letters, and, in some cases, the collected drafts and writings of famous individuals.

Many of the major college libraries have unique and rare works, such as original editions of Dante or early copies of the Bible. For example, Amherst College houses a collection of almost 1,500 pieces written by American Indian writers, with some dating back to the 1700s. The Vassar College library system owns the McKinney Family Papers, which include original manuscripts and letters written by Mark Twain and his family.

Even small colleges have interesting special collections, such as the Science Fiction Collection at Eastern Washington University, which holds of 1,700 original sci-fi paperbacks from the early to mid 20th century.

Study Carrels

Studying is hard enough on its own. It’s even worse if you have to study in your dorm room. Sometimes even studying in the general library area can be maddening, with people coming and going, playing their music, sometimes eating their lunch or snoring right beside you.

Study carrels are single occupancy- rooms that can be assigned to a student for an entire semester. They are locked, and if you’re lucky enough to gain access to one, only you’ve got the key. You may come and go as you please, leave your books and study materials in the room, even decorate it as you like. The rooms are generally sound-proof, making them ideal for getting work done. While often reserved for professors or graduate students, it doesn’t hurt to ask if any spares are available. When I worked at my campus library, there were unused carrels every quarter.


Most campus libraries also have available some truly oddball items. At the JFK Library, we kept a human skeleton beneath the circulation desk. The real deal. Not a fake skeleton. We kept it in a cardboard box. It had been bleached and scrubbed clean, and it wasn’t set up like the ones generally found in a biology classroom. Once or twice a quarter, a few biology students would come to the desk to ask for the skeleton. We checked it out and had to count the bones every time it came back.


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