Academic libraries are libraries which are associated with universities and colleges. These library collections can often be quite extensive and detailed, and they may include materials which are not readily available from other sources. Because of the rarity of some library materials, many schools tightly control who is allowed to access academic libraries. Since many members of the public would like to access academic libraries, this tight control can be an issue. Some academic libraries do allow public access, usually with restrictions, while others do not allow public visitors to access academic libraries.
Many academic libraries actually consist of several branches, and some people, even students, who access academic libraries may only have access privileges in certain branches. A main library holds general collections, while branch libraries hold specific materials, such as music, art, or science-related media. Many public universities allow public access to their main library, but branches may have different policies. Members of the general public must generally pay a small fee to get a library card, and their borrowing may be restricted. For example, people in the public may not be allowed to renew books, take out more than a set number of books on one subject, and so forth.
Access to a main library is still a very useful tool, even if you are not allowed into certain branches of the library system. In some cases, the main library may even let members of the public use their inter-library loan system, which may network with private academic libraries which people cannot otherwise access. You may also be able to take advantage of reading rooms and other facilities in the library.
If you want access to special collections, however, you may face more of a challenge. Students sometimes have free access to special collections, as do alumni in some schools, although alumni may have to pay fees. However, as a member of the general public, your access can be restricted. In some cases, you may not be allowed into special collections at all. In other instances, you will only be able to handle special collections on site, sometimes under the supervision of a librarian.
While this may seem offensive because it implies that you would steal the materials, this is not the intent. Many special collections contain fragile or irreplaceable objects which could be damaged through rough handling or removal. Libraries want to protect their collections while making them available, and the use of controlled reading rooms is one way to facilitate this. You may also be asked to provide a good reason for looking at the material, such as “I'm tracing my genealogy” or “I'm writing an article on this topic.” Academic librarians are often very enthusiastic and knowledgeable; take advantage of this by being friendly with them.
If you want to apply to access academic libraries, visit the library's website first. Most academic libraries have information about borrowing privileges online, and you can also access library catalogs to look for material. If no website is available or the information is unclear, your best course of action is to write to the library requesting access and explaining why you need it. Staffers can tell you whether or not you will be able to view or check out the media in question.