Public and Academic Libraries: What’s the Difference?

A quick primer on the differences (and a few similarities)

A library’s a library, right? They contain books, digital resources and archives, CDs and DVDs, and events, or some combination of all these things. Libraries are repositories of knowledge and information of all kinds. So why is there a distinction between public and academic libraries?


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Because they have different audiences, and those audiences determine the types of resources available in them. That doesn’t mean there isn’t occasionally some overlap, both in the types of materials offered and the users who use them, but they are generally different types of users. Here’s a quick primer on the differences (and a few similarities).

Public Libraries

Public libraries, as the name suggests, serve the public, usually on the city or county level. That can be anyone in the local community, from toddlers to the elderly. This wide demographic group has an equally wide set of needs, everything from the full range of fiction (romance, thriller, mystery, classic literature, sci-fi, etc.) to cookbooks to music and DVD collections focused on general interest, to resources including cooking classes, genealogy assistance, children’s storytimes, teen activities, computer assistance — in other words, the public library reflects the needs of its community. The offerings available are usually tailored specifically to the people who use that library.

Location is also a factor. Public libraries in larger communities can have multiple branches, usually carefully placed at various points in the neighborhoods where they can reach most of the potential users.

Academic Libraries

In contrast, academic libraries serve the college or university of their locations. That means their primary audience isn’t the wider community around the school, but the faculty and students who teach and study at that specific institution. That doesn’t mean they might not carry some popular items like fiction or movies, but it isn’t that library’s primary role. Instead, these libraries focus on what is needed by the various school departments to support educational objectives.

Some academic libraries are designated research libraries, which means they must have resources available for faculty and students to conduct research meant to advance human knowledge. That can include highly technical journals and databases with up-to-date information on advances in various fields, including law, medicine, and other scientific areas. These kinds of specialized, highly focused educational collections are not as likely to be found in public libraries.

Unlike public libraries, which can have several branches across a large community, academic libraries are most likely going to be sited on the school grounds. For large universities which have specialty departmental libraries, like medical or law libraries, those libraries are likely to be located within, or very near, those departments.

Public Access to Academic Libraries

The two types of library systems are not closed off to one another. University faculty and students are welcome to use their local public libraries. The public may also have access to academic libraries, although that access may vary from location to location. Some academic libraries ask outside users to fill out an application. Others work with public libraries through interlibrary loans. In some cases, non-university-affiliated users can visit the academic library to research onsite, but not check out materials. If you’re interested in researching something that you can only find at an academic library, check the library’s website for information on how they work.

And no matter which type of library you visit — take a moment and thank a librarian for the amazing work that they do.