There are many variations in the arrangement of the materials among libraries, but there is some uniformity. There are several factors that govern the differences in arrangement among libraries. These factors include the size of the institution, mission, and availability of resources. There are sometimes separate libraries for undergraduates at some schools while other schools have only one central library. Many universities have a central library and branch libraries which serve various colleges or departments within the university.

Librarians are concerned with arranging materials inside the library as well as locating library facilities for maximum use. Most libraries arrange materials one of two ways. They either arrange them by function or by service provided. The stack area is typically where all the books are shelved together on shelves. Non-book materials such as microform and audio materials are housed in other areas. Access services such as reference help, circulation, and interlibrary loans are provided at specially designated service desks. Libraries usually provide guides to their collections and services. Some libraries have self-guided tours, while others offer a computer-assisted or “virtual” tour of the library. There are several departments and areas found in most college and university libraries.


On rows of shelves, called stacks, the library’s primary collection of books is arranged by call number. Stacks can either be “open” or “closed”. “Closed” stacks can only be accessed by library staff and those with permission. All other patrons present a “call slip” to a library attendant who gets the material. Having closed stacks helps to reduce the loss of library materials by theft and mutilation as well as reducing the amount of books that are out of order in the stacks. Most libraries, however, have books shelved in “open” stacks where users are free to browse and select materials for themselves. Browsing can help in finding materials that the user may not have discovered in the library catalog. In some libraries there is a combination of both systems—the general stacks areas are “open” but special collections are “closed.” Some college and university libraries have stacks open to faculty and graduate students, but closed to undergraduates.

The library catalog is the key to finding materials in the stacks as well as in other areas of the library. A call number, which determines where it will be located in the library, is assigned to each new book or other information source a library acquires. A catalog record is then created. It includes the call number, author’s name, title, publication information, as well as a note giving the height of the book and other descriptive information, which includes such things as availability of maps, illustrations, and/or biographies. To help the library user find the book by subject each book or other material in the library is given a subject heading. The catalog record is placed in the library’s catalog where it is available to library users.

Reference Department

The reference collection is one of the most useful collections in any library. Items included in the reference collection are things used frequently for finding information, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, handbooks, manuals, and indexes. It also includes reference tools in formats other than books such as CD-ROM and computers for accessing the Internet and specialized electronic databases. Typically the reference department has open shelves that are arranged systematically, but some materials like indexes might be shelved on separate index tables to facilitate their use. Reference books that are used a lot might also be shelved in an area near the librarian’s desk. Reference librarians who are familiar with the collection are available to assist patrons find information in the reference area. Reference materials do not circulate as a rule, and they must be used in the reference area.

Reserve Department

Materials that circulate for limited time periods make up the reserve department. The items usually circulate for two hours or overnight. In many libraries, materials such as periodical articles and chapters or parts of books that can be copied are digitized and made available online. Students who are taking the courses for which the materials are reserved access the materials through secured Internet accounts.

Newspaper Department

Current newspaperrs might be housed with other periodical literature or they may be kept in a separate area. Because newspapers are printed on paper that does not last, print copies of newspapers are only kept for a limited period of time. Older copies are usually stored on microfilm.

Media Center

Audiovisual materials and the special equipment needed to access them are often housed together in a Media Center. In some libraries there are separate departments for microforms (Microform Department) and for other types of audiovisual materials (Audiovisual Department). There are many names for Audiovisual departments such as Instructional Media Center, Instructional Resource Center, and Learning Media Center.

Government Information Department

A lot of university libraries are depositories for state, local, national, and international documents. Often, these publications are shelved together in a separate area. Many libraries will keep local and state government documents in an area along with national and international documents. However, it is also commonplace for the libraries to keep the state and local documents in a special room called a state room, this room is designed to preserve and maintain information pertaining to the particular state that the library is in. When the library uses the state room to house these documents, they will usually arrange these by a classification system that has been designed specifically for the state and local information, an example of this could be if federal government documents are in this specific room, they will be shelved by the Superintendent of Documents classification system.

Archives and Manuscripts Department

Documents and records like letters, manuscripts, diaries, personal journals, photographs, maps, and other materials that are of historical value are housed in the archive department. Archivists staff the area. They are specifically trained in acquisition methods and preservation methods of historical materials.

Rare Books Department

It is quite common to find books which are valuable because of their artistic and/or unique qualities or because they are out of print among the library’s collections. These books need special care in handling and protection. These books are not allowed to circulate and are often housed in rooms or in branch libraries. Some libraries house archives, manuscripts, and rare books together.

Special Collections

Many highly specialized collections can usually be found in a university library in order to fulfill its research mission. The advantage of these collections is that they support the school’s effort to become a center for research in particular subject fields.

Branch Libraries

Branch libraries house subject collections such as agriculture, business, chemistry, engineering, music, law, or architecture. They are usually located away from the central or main library. They are often located conveniently in the buildings that serve the needs of students and faculty in a particular discipline.

The Research Proccess: Books and Beyond, 3rd edition
A librarian at Glendora Public Library

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