Types of Academic Libraries


College and University Libraries

Academic libraries are an important part of higher education institutions and usually serve two complementary purposes: to support the curriculum and to support faculty and student research. Although academic library positions vary depending on the mission and type of institution they serve, some common responsibilities include: managing projects, departments, and community relationships; providing instruction, reference, curriculum, research, and classroom support; and keeping up with trends and technological advancements in library and information science.

Community College Libraries

Libraries in two-year colleges (also known as community or junior colleges) occupy an interesting and important middle ground between libraries in universities and public libraries. Community college libraries can function as both research/student academic support hubs and community centers. Therefore, librarians in two-year colleges are often called upon to fill a variety of roles from collection development to reader advisory to circulation to reference and instruction. Community college libraries generally have smaller staffs, which also leads to the blurring of job distinctions as well as the opportunity to assume multiple roles. In addition, the community college setting requires consistent outreach efforts to engage the diverse student body, many of whom are part-time students participating in corporate, technical, and continuing education.

Vocational and Technical College Libraries

Libraries in vocational and technical colleges have a very different focus than that of community colleges, four-year colleges, or universities. Whereas the latter three support a very wide-ranging curriculum that includes both general and specialized studies, vocational and technical college libraries usually have a much narrower mandate. The students’ courses focus on various aspects of technical training offered by each school, and the library resources support both the technical training and often some additional basic business skills. Since students rarely engage in research for their courses (and instructors in general are not engaged in research), there is usually much less bibliographic instruction and research support activity. Instead, librarians for vocational and technical colleges may manage collections of standards and specifications, industry technical magazines, manuals, and a small group of more general business and career resources.

For-Profit College Libraries

For-profit colleges are colleges owned and operated by private, profit-focused companies. A wide variety of types of colleges fit within this category, such as some four-year online schools, local independent campus-based programs, schools that focus on a given profession (for example, nursing), and nationally-based colleges that may have both online programs and local “campuses” in major cities throughout the country, such as DeVry or Strayer Education. The level of support given to the library in for-profit institutions may vary widely, and is often a reflection of which is the higher priority: student success or investor profits. However, in a well-supported, reputable for-profit college, librarians’ responsibilities will be very similar to those in more traditional colleges: student and faculty research support, bibliographic instruction, support for course development, etc. The majority of students in for-profit college programs are working adults often juggling school and family responsibilities, and are sometimes unfamiliar with the processes and requirements of academic work. Consequently, as with community colleges, librarians may assume a much-appreciated coaching role in addition to their more traditional work activities.


Types of Academic Libraries

Examples Institutional Characteristics Sample Roles of Librarian
Large Research Institutions Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Purdue, UCLA, OHSU, Duke Often have several subject specific libraries; often require 2nd Master’s for librarians; have PhD programs; emphasis on scholarly and research support Scholarly communication; bibliographic instruction; embedded librarianship; subject specialization; web development; data management (especially for major research projects undertaken by faculty); archives
4 Year Public Universities SJSU, CSU Stanislaus, Portland State Subject specialist librarians; MA/MS usually highest degree awarded; greater emphasis on instruction rather than research; urban campuses will be mostly commuter students Reference and instruction; outreach; digital services; subject specialists; possible faculty status
Private 4 Year, Liberal Arts Colleges Occidental College, Pomona Small student body and faculty; residential; mostly undergraduates Reference and Instruction; Technical support; Collection Development; typically a jack of all trades; possible faculty status
Community Colleges Ohlone Community College, City College of San Francisco, Santa Rosa Junior College 2-year AA and technical programs; teaching and skill development-centered Outreach and instruction; reference; technical support; typically a jack of all trades; possible faculty status
For-Profit Schools DeVry University, Strayer University, Walden University Generally enroll large numbers of low-income and first-generation students as well as veterans; may offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Outreach and instruction; reference; technical support; some “embedded librarianship” activities working directly with faculty and their course delivery; no faculty status

Explore these university and college library websites below to get a feel for the environment and roles that librarians play. The websites listed are examples only – there are many more academic libraries to explore.