If you are studying in connection with an university in another country, you would expect to have access to that school’s library. In that case, you would use your student or faculty ID just as at home. If you are part of a group studying abroad, you may get a tour or introduction to the library. Otherwise, you may need to arrange something on your own.
Public libraries vary considerably from one country to another and even within countries, just as they do in the U.S. Although some of the major research libraries may be open to the public, they may require registration and payment of fees, especially for the use of their special collections. Because these are what you will probably be using, look at the box for Research Libraries / Special Collections. Otherwise, smaller municipal libraries will be much the same as smaller public libraries in America.
Research Libraries / Special Collections / Archives
These can be among the great collections of the world, but they also vary, from the various national libraries (in some countries there are more than one), to regional libraries (like the State Libraries of Germany, to smaller but rich specialized libraries (like the ecclesiastical libraries of Italy). (For links to some of these, see the box of links on this page, and especially the link for PORT.)
If you plan to use any of these libraries, it is important to plan in advance. The great national libraries generally require that you register, and they may require letters of introduction and fees. It is good to check the websites for more information. Here are some examples:
The libraries and archives of Europe hold some of the greatest collections of the world, not only for European history and culture (as we would expect), but also for other parts of the world, especially for those countries which which were part of European empires in the past, and other countries in which European countries had very strong interests. Some countries of Europe were very wealthy in relation to other countries of the world at various times, and were able to collect material from those countries, even when they did not exercise strong political or military power. The same is also true of European countries in relation to one another. So it may not be so surprising to find some great manuscripts or books from one country in the national library of another. Some of the greatest collections of cuneiform tablets, originating from the ancient Near East, are found in the British Museum and the Louvre, for example.
These libraries, archives, and museums do not differ greatly from similar institutions in the United States, but they can vary greatly, and there are some differences to be aware of if you plan to study or do research there.
Stacks: Problably the biggest difference is that most libraries, even the general collections of public and university libraries, may not have open stacks. You will need to request books at circulation desk, and have them paged.
Call numbers: Even if they do have open stacks, they will most likely use different classifications schemes. Many European libraries use the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC), which is based on the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) used in many American public libraries. Others may have created their own systems, which can be very obscure, especially if they have open stacks and you need to search for the books yourself. In libraries with closed stacks, someone else will get the books for you, so you need only understand the classification well enough to copy the call number (or shelf mark) correctly.
Interlibrary Loan: Most European countries do not have the well-developed tradition and networks for interlibrary loan that we have in the U.S. It does exist, but is better in some countries (e.g., Great Britain and Germany) than in others. So you will most likely be limited to the collections you can visit in person.
PORT (postgraduate online research training) is a portal created by the School for Advanced Studies at the University of London. It includes short descriptions of libraries, archives, and cultural institutions in various countries of Europe, with links to the websites of these institutions. As it was created for the purpose of language study, it is arranged by language, rather than country, so you will find Austrian and some Swiss libraries under “German”.
Information and links to numerous archives of all sorts throughout Europe.