How to Use a Library Cataloging System
You look a little lost. Can I help?
Hey, you there. I see you. You are lurking in the stacks of the library, and you look really scared. Let me guess. That big science fair project is due tomorrow, isn't it? You know, the one that they assigned you at the beginning of the semester and you put off until today? Now you have to find a book of science fair projects and some background information on Isaac Newton in the bargain, right? Well, why are you hiding? You say you don't know where the science books are, and you are afraid to ask?
Have you tried using the catalog? You haven't? Well, why not?
You just don't know to use those little cards, you say?
Wait.... do you think the library catalog looks like this thing here? Well, it did about twenty years ago, but times have changed, my friend. These cards served us well for decades and decades, but you had to travel to the library to read them and they couldn't tell you if an item was checked out or not. Now, with personal computers and the internet, you can use your local public library any time, anywhere, from the comfort of your own home. So, show your bashful head and let's find those books you need.
Sit down at the computer and bring up your local library webpage. Or, since you could almost anywhere in the world, we will use my local library webpage.
The library home page
OK, you found it! Good. Now, look in the upper right hand corner. Do you see where it says "Search the catalog?" Below that, in smaller letters, it says "Advanced Search." Click on that.
The search page
OK here we are on the search page. There's a great big box in front of you, and this is where you put in keywords that you think will lead you to the book you need. You can search in a number of different ways: by title, by author, by subject. You can narrow your search by format, by whether it's an adult or a children's book, or even by which particular branch library owns the books. But right now, you really need a kid's science project book about gravity, right? OK. We will look for kid's books, and we will choose the terms "science project" and "gravity".
The search term
OK, done. Now, what does this search term bring up? It looks like we get four books with this particular search.
The results page
Ah, here's the book we want
OK, here's the part where I can make a recommendation, seeing as how I am a professional librarian and everything. Janice VanCleave has been one of the best authorities in books about science projects for many years, and she's going to be the first author I suggest for you out of this selection. However, here's the cool part - once we get to the stacks, it's very likely that there will be other books about science projects right next to the one we've chosen, so we may have more than one book to choose from when we actually start looking at the books.
Wide view of catalog page for the book we want
And here's the results page! It's a little hard to read it on this photograph but there are six columns with important information for you.
Location - In library systems with more than one branch, this will be the particular branch that owns the book you want. Five different branches have it.
Collection - Is it a kid's item or an adult item? Is it a book, a movie, a book on CD? Is it fiction or non-fiction? In this case, the book we want is children's non-fiction,
Call Number - In the Dewey Decimal system, the Call Number is a specific number that special librarians called catalogers assign. This number actually means something very specific. The call number 531.14 will mean "science projects about gravity" at every library in the world that uses the Dewey Decimal system.
Year of publication - This information is handy, especially if you are doing a science project. It's better to use more up-to-date information if possible.
Status - Is it on the shelf, or checked out? This field can save you a lot of trouble; you don't want to go looking for a book that isn't there.
Request - If the book you want is not available, try putting a hold or request on it. Many library systems will send it from the owning branch to the branch that's most convenient for you, and then call you when it comes in.
Closeup: the locations and call number
Here's a couple of closeups so you can see the page better.
OK, now you know where your book is, and you know where to go to get it! Your own local library webpage may look a little different, but chances are very good that it offers most of the same services that this one does, and functions much the same. Consult your local librarian for more information. And while we are at it - here's more information about that book we just looked up. Searching for books on a library cataloging system is now almost as easy as doing a Google search. Happy hunting!