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Introduction to library research in the arts: What are libraries?

An introduction to research concepts and techniques for University of Redlands students in fine, literary and performing arts, developed as an Open Educational Resource (OER)

Learning objective

  • Compare and contrast different types of libraries.

Questions to Consider

Have you had any prior experience using libraries before coming to the University of Redlands? If so, what were your visits to the library like?

Why do libraries exist?

Stack of books at Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011

Libraries serve two important purposes in society.

  1. Libraries help people overcome barriers to accessing and using information. They advocate for the needs of users along each of the three dimensions of information that we discussed earlier.
    1. perspectives: libraries strive to build diverse collections that give voice to underrepresented perspectives. Their services can provide meaningful interventions in support of building socially just communities.
    2. economic: libraries support a culture of sharing information (such as books, videos, and other media) at low to no cost. Libraries can create spaces to resist the encroachment of commercialization in ever more aspects of life.
    3. legal: libraries support the ability to make use of information free of legal constraints (open access).
  2. Libraries exist to preserve knowledge for future generations to access. Michael Gorman has described this mission, "stewardship of the records of humankind" as "the one task we have that we do not and cannot share with others." (Michael Gorman, Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century, Chicago: American Library Association, 2000, p. 174)

"Occupy Wall Street Protests 9/27/2011" by RoccoPHill is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Different libraries, similar missions

There are several different types of libraries serving various user communities, but they share a similar commitment to preserving information and making it accessible. In the United States, we find the following categories of libraries:

  1. School libraries support students in elementary, middle and high school. Libraries may be attached to a district or support an individual school.
  2. Academic libraries support faculty and students at colleges and universities. They are organized to support the mission of their parent institution (e.g. liberal arts schools like University of Redlands, Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs], research intensive universities or Tribal colleges)
  3. Public libraries are operated by municipal governments and serve the general population of a city or county. They support all ages and types of library users, such as parents with young children, people experiencing homelessness, teenagers participating in after school programs and senior citizens)
  4. Special libraries include libraries supporting employees at a company (corporate libraries), and libraries organized for a specific purpose (e.g. law libraries)

Who works in libraries?

Armacost Library hires students, staff and faculty to fulfill a wide range of functions.

Access Services staff are the public face of the library. They help train and supervise student employees, manage course reserves and interlibrary loan workflows, and ensure that items in the library are shelved properly and returned in a timely manner to be able to circulate to others.

Technical Services staff maintain the infrastructure needed to be able find information. They coordinate economic purchases needed to bring information into the library collection and add information (metadata) to make it discoverable. They also maintain the technological systems needed to access information and support all library operations.

Librarians coordinate decision making in various areas of the library and support the information needs of students and faculty in all departments. They teach people how to understand and meet their own information needs in the classroom, one on one, and via research guides (like this one). They also select physical and online information resources (books, journals, databases) to support student learning.

Assignment: Your hometown library

Do an internet search for your hometown library. Browse its website to find:

  1. The library's mission and/or vision statements
  2. Descriptions of its collection and services offered
  3. A listing of who works in the library

Compare and contrast this with similar information from Armacost Library at

Key Points

  • There are many different types of libraries supporting different groups of library users, such as K-12 students, college students, and everyone living in a city or county.
  • Libraries exist to provide access to information and preserve it for future generations.
  • Libraries are not perfect, but they have the potential to counterbalance some of the forces contributing to social inequality.