5 Library Resources You Should be Using

5 library resourcesBefore I became a librarian, I worked as a neuroanatomy and immunohistochemistry technician for almost 20 years.  After I completed my library degree, I found that working in a research library affiliated with a medical school allowed me to stay in touch with the research community while giving my hands a break from benchwork. The amount of research at my institution that I am now involved with is more varied than in my prior life as a tech.

Working in a library in an academic institution is fulfilling but can be frustrating.  At the library, we get many general questions such as “What are the library’s hours?” or “Where can I scan this document?”  However, our researchers don’t know all the resources the library has to offer.   Here’s a list of the top library resources that users should be putting to better use.   Since I work in a health sciences library affiliated with a medical school, some of the resources may vary slightly from other libraries, but most academic libraries will offer similar tools and services.


Sounds obvious, right?  Most of the users of the library are either students who want to study (in our case they are medical or graduate students) or visitors.   Most of our other users never set foot in the library.  They get all the information they need electronically through journal and database subscriptions paid for by the library and accessed through the library’s website or via proxy from databases such as PubMed.   This is great and we are happy that our users can access literature easily without having to come to the library itself.   But…

What our users don’t know is that many academic libraries offer space for the research community to reserve and use:  small conference rooms with computer hook-ups and video screens and/or computer classrooms that offer teaching space for hands-on computer training.   Many library computers are equipped with specialized software.  Also, our users can check out computer peripheral equipment such as Mac adaptor cables, laptops and projectors.


This again seems obvious, but our library has done extensive usability testing on our website and we know that our users rarely start their searches at the library’s web pages.  This is fine, because information technology staff works hard to make links from databases such as PubMed and Web of Science to full text articles as seamless as possible.   But users don’t know that academic libraries have a lot of great content on their websites, such as step-by-step guides and tutorials on how to conduct literature searches or manage citations, writing guides, lists of core titles in specific disciplines, electronic textbooks and specialized databases–there’s a lot more out there than just PubMed and Google Scholar.


Many academic libraries pay for software that can save users’ departments loads of money in individual subscriptions.   Libraries may provide users with statistical packages, graphics editing packages or even video editing software.  Medical libraries often pay subscriptions for dissection guides, physical examination guides and atlases that are not available through open sources.  Some libraries pay for specialized software such as biological pathway analysis or microarray analysis packages.  Many libraries also pay for reference management software (such as EndNote or RefMan).


You should check to see if your academic library offers classes or workshops.  Many libraries teach classes in the use of citation management software (including free resources like Zotero); creating scientific posters or slide presentations; efficient search techniques for MEDLINE, Web of Science, SciFinder Scholar, Google Scholar; or GIS (geographical information systems).  Additionally, a number of research libraries employ bioinformatics experts who teach classes on finding and aligning protein or nucleotide sequences (BLAST), using genome browsers and structure tools.  These experts are sometimes librarians with a second degree in the sciences (PhDs or Master’s degrees in biochemistry, molecular biology, neuroscience or, in my case, bioinformatics).  They may also be PhD non-librarians who are working from offices in the library—a large number of my bioinformatics colleagues don’t have library degrees at all, but teach classes and have offices in the library.


Okay, you probably could have predicted that I would make one of those “Librarians are so cool!” statements…so I will.  One of the reasons I decided to leave the bench and become a librarian was that I had met so many really fantastic librarians throughout my academic career.  Librarians work with faculty, staff and students across many departments.  This makes the library an institutional core facility, just like a microscopy & imaging core facility or a biostatistics core facility.  Often librarians can make connections between users who have shared needs or skills.  One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from a user who said that he loved working with librarians because “they connect people to resources, even when those resources are other people”.  I know that I can’t answer every question about managing large sequence datasets or untangling a mass of disparate microarray platform probe identifiers, but I often have a suggestion for my users on whom they should contact for expert assistance, even if it’s not me. The library is probably the most budget-friendly core facility, since most librarians don’t charge their users by the hour for research consultations.

There are lots of things your library has to offer that you never knew about, so you might want to pay a visit or make a call to your librarian—chances are good that they can help make your research more efficient.

Pamela Shaw received her Bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Oberlin College and worked as a neuroanatomy & histology lab tech for many years at Loyola University and Northwestern University.  Upon completion of her Master’s degree in Library & Information Sciences from University of Illinois, she was hired as Biosciences Librarian at the Galter Health Sciences Library at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.  She was awarded a National Library of Medicine Informationist Fellowship and is using it to complete a second Master’s degree in Computational Biology & Bioinformatics at Northwestern University.

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