The Difference Between a Public Library & a School Library

Almost every community in every state in the U.S. has a library. Libraries can be a treasure trove of resources, whether you want to read the latest mystery novel or learn a new skill. Many types of libraries exist, however, as well as differences between the most common types, the school library and the public library.


One of the primary differences between a public library and a school library is the collections offered. Public libraries intend to serve the general public and offer collections of bestsellers, general fiction books, self-help books and lifestyle books, such as repair manuals, cookbooks and craft guides. Public libraries may carry some reference materials, such as government documents and local interest research materials, but the primary collections at most public libraries are not academically-focused.

School libraries, on the other hand -- especially at the upper grade levels and universities -- have an academic focus. While they may carry some fiction, and the occasional popular title, the vast majority of the collection is geared towards nonfiction, scholarly books that students can use for research and learning. The exception is elementary school libraries, which may have a wider variety of fiction titles to encourage children to read.

Location and Operation

Location and operating hours are another area of difference between public and school libraries. School libraries are attached to an educational institution, either inside the physical school building or as part of the larger campus.

Public libraries are not tied to one particular building or location. In some cities or towns, there may be several branches of the library spread around town to serve different neighborhoods.

School libraries located inside of school buildings usually only open during school hours and close on weekends, with the exception of university libraries, which usually open seven days a week and sometimes for 24 hours. Public libraries are generally open for business hours, and sometimes on the weekends, depending on the community. In some smaller communities, public libraries have very limited hours.


School libraries and public libraries are funded by different sources. In general, school libraries are funded through the annual school budget, determined by the state and local governments. Some schools may have fundraisers to help add materials to the library, but they receive very little outside funding.

Public libraries, on the other hand, also receive funds by state and federal dollars, but they have more leeway in terms of raising money. Many public libraries have a "Friends Of" organization or a foundation that works to raise money for the library. They can hold book sales or other fundraisers, such as capital campaigns or annual funds. Public libraries also earn income through fines and fees, such as for room or computer use.


The usage of school libraries and public libraries is also different. In most school systems, children in elementary, and sometimes middle, school have a dedicated library time each week. During this time, they receive instruction on how to use the library and have the opportunity to check out books. Public libraries are completely optional, and while librarians at public facilities can help with researching specific topics, they generally do not provide overall instruction on library usage.

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