By Jeff Greer

If you talk to a college admissions officer or a high school guidance counselor about things to do when you visit a college campus, one of the first things they say is to visit the libraries on campus. Bring a book or some schoolwork, sit down, and soak up the environment.

Can you see yourself there for four years?

"The library is the backbone of a college or university's academic environment," says Kelly Alice Robinson, career information services manager at the Career Center Library at Boston College.

Not only is the actual physical library one of the main spots where college students go to get work done (and socialize), it's also a useful resource of a wide range of information and services, she says. And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the digital capabilities that many library systems possess. U.S. News spoke a handful of experienced librarians from colleges to find out what prospective students--and their parents--should look for when they check out a prospective school's library.

1. What is the staff like?

Chat with a reference desk staffer or two. How helpful are they? What kinds of information can they provide? Do they seem like they are prepared and willing to help students? These are important questions.

"More and more colleges libraries have shifted to become service-oriented," says Cindy Fisher, a first-year experience librarian at the University of Texas--Austin who helps new students transition into college. "Think of some things you might need as a student and ask the librarian at the reference desk what kind of resources their school offers."

An important thing to note is that schools' libraries are different based on the school's size, Robinson says. Some bigger schools have subject librarians and libraries who specialize in certain topics, like history. Smaller schools may not have this specialization. But that doesn't mean the smaller schools and their libraries don't pack a punch: Many schools operate in consortia with other colleges and networks to give students a nice plate of resources.

2. How much does the library system and its librarians interact and work with faculty?

Find out what, if any, types of collaboration professors have with the libraries. Fisher says professors and librarians at many schools work together to create course content or inform each other's work and research. If you can get a sense of the relationship and bond between these two major parts of campus life, you can get a nice picture of how smoothly you can research class topics and projects.

"Try to get a sense of the fluidity of organization, the transparency of people and tools and access," says Sarah Bordac, the head of outreach and instructional design at Brown University Library.

3. What's the atmosphere like?

Walk into the library and go about your normal business. Some campuses have multiple libraries--one of which is likely to be more of a social environment than the other quieter, more serious locales. Test them all out. And within each library, there are places to chat and places to intently focus. Visit each spot.

At Brown University, "we've made our library spaces more inviting, more personal," says Brown's University Librarian Harriette Hemmasi. "When you come in, you get the sense that someone cares about you as a student in that environment ... That's really important. It becomes sort of a home away from home."

4. Check the library system website and digital resources.

This is a big one. It's a new digital age in information services, and academic libraries are on the cutting edge. From digital documents to ramped-up search engines, many library systems can help you find just about anything that can help you with your projects. And because a lot of libraries close at a certain hour--unless it's finals week--it's vitally important to see what they offer online when you're cranking out that term paper at 4 a.m.

"Find out what happens after the physical library closes," Fisher, of UT--Austin, says. "Is the website easy to navigate? How easy is it to access all the great information that the school's library system has?"

A big part of Fisher's job is showing new students how to use the UT library system. She helps students get comfortable with their new academic atmosphere. W hen you talk to the librarians at your prospective schools, ask them if the school offers courses or seminars to new students. After all, libraries and their services are a major part of your college experience, and making sure that you can use them to your advantage should be among the top factors on your list for picking a school.

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