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'Annoy your librarian': how to study without library access at university

Tess Reidy
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy

Universities are following the latest government Covid guidance and, as a result, most libraries on campus are operating on an essential access only basis. Some are providing bookable, socially distanced study areas; others are offering click-and-collect services.

With limited access to resources, students say they are struggling. First year psychology student Erin Carr has been unable to get hold of the mandatory reading for her course. “The online books have expiry dates of a few days and have a limited number of times they can be downloaded,” she says. “On top of this, I don’t have the required storage space on my device. It’s really frustrating.”

Creative writing student Owen Clark* has been hit with a £20 fine for two books he’s been unable to return, and is relying on online journals as he lives at home. “The uni is emailing me asking for the books back,” he says. “I don’t know what they expect me to do.”

While browsing books on the library shelves isn’t possible at the moment, there are other things to try.

Speak to the librarian

“My most important tip – annoy your librarian,” says Colin Higgins, librarian at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. “It’s our job to support our students. If you can’t find what you’ve been asked to read, your librarian will be able to find it for you.”

Avoid using Google and get to know your library website. “Librarians are organised people,” says Higgins. “They’ll know what resources are more relevant to your work, and they’ll have arranged their online libraries to offer you the most painless access to the things you need.”

Regina O’Brien, assistant director of operations and user services at Lancaster University, says students should “definitely get in touch” and can book one-to-one online appointments and training sessions with subject-specific support.

Where possible, use online chat functions. At City University, these are available from Monday to Friday, and at the University of Sunderland, students can request support via video calls.

No matter how far along in your course, learn how to use the library search engine properly. “It’s not embarrassing not knowing how to use them, as they can be a bit of a nightmare,” says Michael Natzler, policy officer at the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

Use online resources

Most universities have been working to digitise collections and expand their provision of ebooks and other online material, as well as ensuring students have access to e-databases and journals such as Jstor.

Find out what logins, subscriptions and learning resources are available. At Middlesex, for instance, students in the Arts and Creative Industries faculty have access to Adobe Creative Cloud software. At The University of the Arts London, students have subscriptions to databases such as LinkedIn Learning, which has videos to support creative practice; Box of Broadcasts, which provides access to TV and radio programmes from numerous channels; and free film streaming via Kanopy.

Stick to reputable sources. “There are always different sides to all academic theories and the spectre of fake news hovers over a number of news resources,” says Fiona Greig, director of library and IT services at the University of Winchester.

Look for secondhand books

Don’t think you need to buy new books. The National Union of Students says all texts needed for courses should be available online – but students feel they are disadvantaged if they don’t have them. “I’ve considered buying key texts, but they are selling for around £40 a book on Amazon,” says Carr. “I’ve got no job due to the pandemic, I simply cannot buy all the books I need.”

Facebook groups and eBay can be a good place to look for secondhand copies, especially if you are able to sell them on again afterwards. Warwick student Darcey Edkins says she ended up buying her literature books via a “pass the book” sale on Facebook. “It’s still not ideal, but it’s much cheaper than Amazon.”

Recreate the buzz

Many students are missing going into the library. It can provide a vital welfare function, enabling you to access space outside your bedroom and a chance to see others and avoid loneliness. For those missing background noise while they work, some student unions, such as the University of Manchester, are organising virtual study sessions on Zoom. Alternatively, there are also eight-hour tracks on YouTube mimicking libraries and cafes.

Contact tutors

Lecturers say they are constantly updating their reading lists to prioritise items available in digital format. If you’re struggling to access hard copies, let them know and they can point you in the right direction. Although academics are very pressed for time at the moment and responses may take a few days, Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, says being able to share screens and show specific articles is one advantage of online teaching.

* Name changed on request