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Understand how to search for books, journals, government documents, and media that you can access through your college or university library.

You can hunt for information on your topic by consulting the library catalog. In many modern libraries, the bulky file drawers containing 3 x 5-inch cards have been replaced by computer terminals. Regardless of how the information is stored, all library catalogs list books and other materials owned by the library. The other materials might be videos, sound recordings, government documents, journals both print and electronic, and perhaps even some well-chosen web sites and electronic books.

You might be very familiar with using internet search engines such as Google. However, library catalogs have different rules for searching. Libraries use different software programs (NOTIS, Endeavor, or ExLibris), so you may need to check for help information about your local system. For example, most library catalogs require that you search for authors by using this order:

last name, first name
ex: Gibson, Willam

Some library catalogs may require that you skip typing "the" or "a" or "an" at the beginning of the title of a book. Instead of looking for the Ernest Hemingway novel under the title The Sun Also Rises you may need to drop off "the" and look by title:

ex: "sun also rises"

You will be able to search by the author of an item, by the title, and by the subject. Generally, you will not be searching the full text of each book; although more and more books are being published in e-book format.

Many libraries use subject headings recommended by the Library of Congress. The subject heading for your topic might not be readily apparent. You can try searching by keyword and see if that leads you to a subject heading. For example, a keyword search for "Broadway musicals" will bring up a list of books and recordings. When you look at the entries for the items, you will notice the Library of Congress subject headings that you would probably never guess. For example:

"Musicals-United States-History and criticism"
"Musicals-New York (State)-New York-History and criticism"

Once you identify the subject headings for your topic, you may find that you are able to get a more specific search than you can with keywords. Your librarian can show you the book of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).

Keyword searching can also help if you can't remember an entire citation for a book. You can try searching for terms such as author's last name and one word from the title in order to find the entry for a specific book.

Library of Congress Classification System

The Library of Congress also provides a system for arranging books on the shelves in libraries. The LC Classification System is widely used in college and university libraries. Some libraries use the Dewey Decimal Classification system.

  • Library of Congress Web site: If you are unsure about which subject headings your topic is likely to be listed under, you can check the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).
  • About the Human Internet: Explanation of Library of Congress Subject Headings by Matt Rosenberg

Search Library Catalogs World Wide

Many library catalogs can be searched from any computer on the internet and most library catalogs are made freely accessible. This means that you can sit in your room in the middle of the night and search libraries all over the world! If you have plenty of time to do your research and you identify items you need from other libraries, you can check with your library about the possibility of interlibrary loan. Your college or university library will be able to borrow most material from other libraries on your behalf.