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Learning to research in the library

Note: the links below take you further down on this page.

Get to know your library - what kind of information is found there?

Tips, tools and techniques for library research:

Reference sources in library

Info Search Topics

Learning to Research in the Library

Information Found—and Not Found—on the Web

Learning to Research on the Web

Search Strategy: Getting a Broad Overview of a Subject

Skills for Online Searching

Search Strategy: Finding Specific Information

Get to know your library

The resources available to you will vary a lot depending on whether you're using an academic library at a large university, a public library in a large (or small) community, or a high school library. Find out early in your research project what resources your library has, by visiting and taking a tour, if possible. Some college libraries offer an online tour of the library or a self-guided tour using handouts in addition to tours guided by librarians.

Many people who use libraries don't make full use of the reference collection except for the encyclopedias, while reference librarians have spent large amounts of money and time in developing wonderful reference collections for research. See Reference Sources in Libraries to see a small sample of the kind of information may be hiding in your library's reference room.

Libraries build their collections based on what they think their patrons will need, so the collections of reference materials, fiction and non-fiction will differ between a public and an academic library. Be aware of what kind of collection you're working with, and make arrangements to visit a different library if necessary.

Learn to browse - understand the classification scheme in your library

A library's classification scheme is a system by which books are organized to be placed on the shelves. Browsing the shelves is an important step when you're trying to get ideas for your research project, so it's worth the effort to become familiar with your library's system.

Most libraries in the U.S. use either the Dewey Decimal system or Library of Congress system, while Britain uses the UDC and other countries use various systems. All of the systems attempt to "co-locate" books with similar subject matter. In a smaller library, many times you can bypass the catalog as a starting point and go directly to the shelves for a first look at your topic, so long as you have a chart of the classification scheme as a guide.

Remember, though, that a book can have only one location in a library. Some books cover more than one subject and the cataloguer has to choose one place to locate the book. Also, non-book materials such as videos and films, will be located in a different section of the building and could be missed by simply shelf-browsing the book collection.

See our charts summarizing the Dewey Decimal Classification System and the Library of Congress Classification System.

Learn how online library catalogs work

A library catalog is a listing of all the items held by a particular library. A cataloguer examines the item (book, video, map, audio tape, CD, etc.) and decides how it will be described in the library's catalog and under what subject it will be classified. When the item is entered into the library's online catalog database, information is entered into different fields, which are then searchable by users.

Library catalogs usually treat a book as a single "item" and catalog it that way, even if it might be a book of poetry or a book of essays by different authors. You can't find a reference to a particular poem in the library catalog, nor to a particular essay within a book of essays. The same is true of magazines, journals and newspapers. The library catalog will tell you if the library keeps a particular periodical in its collection, but will not list all the articles within the periodical, nor will it necessarily even list all the issues of the periodical which are kept. There are other publications in the reference room which will help you retrieve these individual items, but usually not the library catalog (see Reference Sources in Libraries for examples, as well as the Find out how to search for journals and newspapers section below).

Most catalogs are searchable by author, title, subject and keyword. Some of the important things you need to know about the information in those fields is discussed below.

Searching the catalog by subject and keyword

The subject field of a catalog record contains only the words or phrases used by the cataloguer when assigning a subject heading. If the library is using Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), for example, the subject heading for a book about how playing football affects the players' bodies would probably be assigned the subject heading "Football—physiological aspects." Unless you type in that entire phrase as your search term, you won't find the book by searching the subject field.

Subject field searching can be very helpful, but you must find out how the subject you're looking for is worded by using the subject manuals or getting help from the reference librarian. Once you zero in on an appropriate subject heading, a search in the catalog will give you a list of all the items in the library's collection categorized under that heading, so you can browse the collection online. Note also that most items are classified under one or two very specific subject headings, rather than under many subjects.

The keyword field of a library catalog generally searches several fields in the database record—the author, title, and description fields. The description is any information about the catalogued item which may have been entered by the cataloguer. This is not the full text of the book, nor is it an abstract (summary) of the book but rather a short paragraph containing information the cataloguer thought would be helpful to a user. This is not like searching for keywords in an indexed database like Alta Vista on the internet, where every word in a document has been recorded.

For this reason, keyword searching alone could miss an item pertinent to your research project if the keyword you use was not included in the short paragraph written by the cataloguer. It's best to use a combination of keyword searching and subject-field searching to make a comprehensive search of the library catalog.

Searching other libraries' catalogs

There are lots of library catalogs on the internet—but so what? You can search the catalog of a library in Timbuktu, but that doesn't get you the book. Remember that library catalogs do not have full text of books and documents but are just a database with descriptions of the library's holdings. There are a few, and will be more, actual online libraries where you can go to read or search full text documents. Just don't confuse these special resources with a library catalog, which is very different. See Reference Sources on the Web for links to online books.

Find out how to search for journals and newspapers at your library

Most libraries have either print, CD-ROM, or online (either in the library or sometimes on the Web) indexes of magazine, journal and newspaper articles (referred to as periodicals) available for users. Some of these are abstracts of the articles, which are short summaries written to describe the article's contents in enough detail so that a reader can decide whether or not to seek out the full text. Some of these sources may be in the form of full text, where the entire articles have been entered into the database.

The databases will include particular periodicals published within a span of time (for example, a popular newspaper index goes back 36 months for certain major newspapers). Know what the database you're searching contains and whether it's represented as abstract or full text. Get some pointers from the reference librarian about how to search that particular database, and build on what you've learned about search syntax and search techniques from Skills for Online Searching.

Note that these resources, whether print or digital, contain information about periodicals which may not be held by your library. If the database does not have full text articles, you may find an article right on point to your topic, but that particular newspaper or journal may not be in your library's collection. There are ways to get these articles, the fastest ways involving paying a fee to a company in the business of providing articles to researchers! Check out your options with the reference desk if you need an article that's not in your library's collection.

Bibliography surfing

Web surfing is finding an interesting Web page and then using the hyperlinks on that page to jump to other pages. If you find the first page interesting, chances are you’ll also be interested in the pages the author has chosen to link to.

Librarians and researchers have been doing this for a long time, in the print medium. It’s a valuable tool for identifying sources on your chosen topic.

What you do is use the bibliography provided at the end of an encyclopedia article, journal article or book that you’ve found particularly pertinent to your topic and follow the bibliographic references much as you would hyperlinks on the Web. Since you’re locating items which influenced the author of the original article and to which he or she referred, they’re likely to be "on point" to your topic. Then use the bibliography at the end of those cited articles to find even more items, and so on.

Consult the reference librarian for advice

Several times above, you've been advised to consult the reference librarian. Reference librarians can help save you a lot of time because they know their library's collection very well—both the reference collection and the nonfiction collection—and can often tell you "off the top of their heads" whether or not the library has a particular item you're looking for. They are also skilled searchers, both of the library's catalog and of online resources such as CD-ROM, online databases and the internet. In addition, they're trained in teaching others to use these resources and are glad to do so.

Learn about search syntax and professional search techniques

To be successful at any kind of online searching, you need to know something about how computer searching works. At this time, much of the burden is on the user to intelligently construct a search strategy, taking into account the peculiarities of the particular database and search software. The section on Skills for online searching will get you started.

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A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz