How to Use a Library for Research

Many times instructors will recommend, or even require, that student researchers avoid the popular search engines and, instead, use a library, when doing their research. A visit to the library can transform your research efforts from simple look-ups into an educational experience that reveals many more resources that are open to you.

How to Use a Library for ResearchNot only is a library a source of countless texts, but it is also a place where you can seek the help of reference librarians who are schooled in using both print and digital resources to find reliable sources of information.Research librarians can also help you review and understand the requirements of an assignment, help you get started, and direct you in your search for information.

Libraries also offer you the advantage of being able to access books, articles, and other documents that are off-limits to average users. Most public and university libraries are members of these database networks, and they allow you to access them through computers in the library or by entering information from your library card or student ID.Many libraries offer their own search engines for finding articles in specialized databases. Usually, they allow you to search by categories (such as the humanities,
science, or business) and click on a journal to browse it or to enter keywords to search across databases, much like you do when using an online search engine.

How to Use a Library Catalog

An important part of your exploratory research is identifying the specific sources to use when you begin taking notes for your paper. The best place to start is the library catalog, which includes a list of all the books in your library. Assuming the catalog is online and you need help using it, ask the librarian to show you how. Check to see if you can access your library catalog on your home computer too.

You can search the library catalog in three ways—by subject, title, or author. A subject search shows the titles of books on your topic. To do a subject search, type in your topic. Then click on “subject.” You will get a list of all the books in the library on your topic, including the title, author, and call number for each book. The call number is important because the books are placed on the shelves in numerical order according to call number.

If you happen to know particular authors or titles of books that you might want to use, do an author or title search. Type in the author’s name to get a list of books by that author, or type in the title of a book to get information about that book.

In most online catalogs, you can get more information about a book by highlighting the title and clicking on “more information,” “expanded view,” or a similar phrase that appears on the screen. Then the catalog shows the name of the publisher, the place and date the book was published, whether or not the book is available, the call number, and where in the library it is located—the reference section, the adult nonfiction section, or the children’s section. You also may be able to click on helpful options such as “More by this author” or “More titles like this.”

All libraries use some form of cataloging or classification system to organize books. This allows library patrons to easily find the books on the shelves and tells librarians how to return them to their proper places when borrowers bring them back. Libraries use a variety of different classification schemes to index and shelve their books.The two most widely used are the Dewey Decimal Classification system (DDC) and the Library of Congress Classification system (LCC).

The Dewey Decimal Classification System (DDC) was developed by Melvil Dewey in 1876 to standardize the way in which books were organized within libraries. The Library of Congress Classification System (LCC) was developed in 1897 by the U.S. Library of Congress to meet the archival needs of the U.S. government. More than 95 percent of U.S. libraries use one or the other to provide a logical system for helping researchers and readers quickly locate titles about their topics. Most U.S. research and university libraries have moved to the LCC, while the DDC continues as the system most often found in public and school libraries. The categories in the two systems tend to reflect one another, although the precise alphanumeric system used by each is different. Both systems are constantly being expanded to keep up with the evergrowing body of published knowledge.

Researchers who lack a working knowledge of either system can always ask a librarian to point them in the right direction. However, it helps to have a basic understanding of how
the systems work, particularly if you plan to browse the library shelves for books on your research paper topic.

Decoding Call Numbers

Both the DDC and the LCC use alphanumeric systems to identify titles according to topic. Each title is assigned an identification number, called a “call number,” according to how it is classified in the DDC or LCC.

Because it uses a system in which the categories and subcategories are divisible by 10, many researchers find DDC call numbers more logical and easier to use than the LCC’s alphanumeric codes. The DDC organizes topics under 10 general categories that are identified by number. Each category is further divided into subcategories, also identified by number. DDC codes continue with a decimal-based system that is relatively easy to decipher as you zero in on your subject. Many times, the decimal is followed by a letter which indicates the first letter of the last name of the author.

Dewey Decimal Classification System

The 10 general categories of the Dewey Decimal System include:

  • 000 Generalities
  • 100 Philosophy and psychology
  • 200 Religion
  • 300 Social sciences and anthropology
  • 400 Language
  • 500 Natural sciences and mathematics
  • 600 Technology and applied sciences
  • 700 The arts
  • 800 Literature and rhetoric
  • 900 Geography and history

For a list of the subclassifications under each category and more information about the DDC, visit the Dewey Services page of the Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC) at

Library of Congress Classification System

LCC call numbers begin with a letter, designating the general category, followed by either another letter or a number that designates the subcategory. Deciphering LCC codes
is trickier and may require the help of a librarian. The first letter in an LCC call number refers to one of the 21 categories represented in the system.The initial digit is followed by a letter or number combination that represents the subcategory. However, some categories in the LCC (including E and F which represent the history of the Americas) use numbers to
indicate the subcategory and others (such as D which represents some areas of history, and K which represents Law) use three letters.The digits that follow the category and subcategory in the call number further define the subject. The final three letter-number combination in the call number is called the “cutter number.” It provides a code to the name of the author or the organization that sponsored the publication. The 21 general categories of the LCC include:

  • A General works
  • B Philosophy, psychology, religion
  • C Auxiliary sciences of history, such as archaeology and genealogy
  • D World history and the history of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and so on
  • E–F History of the Americas
  • G Geography, anthropology, recreation
  • H Social sciences
  • J Political science
  • K Law
  • L Education
  • M Music and books on music
  • N Fine arts
  • P Language and literature
  • Q Science
  • R Medicine
  • S Agriculture
  • T Technology and engineering
  • U Military science
  • V Naval science
  • Z Bibliography and library science, information resources

You will find a full list of LCC categories and subcategories in Appendix B of this book. More information about the LCC can be found online through the Library of Congress Cataloging Distribution Service at

No matter which system your library uses, your search for books at the library will begin with the library’s catalog. A library catalog is much like any other catalog. It is a record of everything that is available to you. Items within the library are indexed by their call numbers and arranged on the shelves according to their categories and subcategories.

Browsing for Information

Knowing the category and subcategory designations for your research paper topic also allows you to peruse the library shelves and browse titles in your subject area. Browsing is often useful in the early stages of your search for information because it allows you to open the books and scan the tables of contents, indexes, introductions, and chapter headings of books on your topic. These, in turn, can offer you a good idea of how helpful the work will be. Browsing, however, can be time-consuming.

To use your browsing time effectively, acquaint yourself with the categories under which you will likely find titles about your topic. Learn where the categories are shelved in the library. Typically, you will find topic labels or the range of call numbers for the topics in that aisle posted at the ends of individual aisles. After identifying the call numbers for your topic and subtopic, you will be able to go directly to the shelves where titles on your topic are located.

Keep in mind, however, that the best materials on your topic might not always be in the section where you are browsing. If a publication covers a variety of topics, it may be classified under one that is different from what you looked up.

Fortunately, subjects in card catalogs are cross-referenced so that you can search by title of the work,author’s name,and a variety of keywords, as well as by subject.Your search will produce a record of the books with a “call number,” or identification code. Libraries typically organize their shelves sequentially according to the system they use and label the ends of the aisles with the range of numbers to be found on the shelves in each aisle.

An Effective Browsing Strategy:

  1. Identify the main category in the DDC or LCC system (whichever one your library uses) under which you are likely to find your topic.
  2. Identify the logical subcategory under which your topic would fall.
  3. Make a notation of the category and subcategory identification codes.
  4. Use the first digit in the identification code to find your aisle.
  5. Use the second digit in the code to identify the range of shelves containing titles on the subcategory.
  6. Find titles that fit your topic.
  7. Review the chapter headings, introduction, index, relevant pages, illustrations, and captions in the volume to identify how helpful the title will be.
  8. As you browse through the shelves, remember that when the initial digits of the identification codes change, you’ll be leaving your topic and moving into another.

How to Use Books for Research Paper Writing

For many people, books are an indispensable part of research. For starters, they’re “user-friendly.” It’s easy to open a book and start reading. You don’t need any special equipment such as a computer terminal to read a book, either. Since it takes time to write and publish a book, they tend to be reliable sources. Right now, you’ll learn how to find the books you need to complete your research paper. Library collections are also limited by the physical capacity of the buildings. Fortunately, most of today’s libraries are connected through networks to other, affiliated libraries, allowing you to order titles that can be delivered locally. The library’s card catalog tells you what is in your library’s collection and what can be ordered through its network.

All libraries are repositories of recorded information, but not all libraries are alike. Their collections differ—both in the kinds of materials they offer and in how they categorize them. Public libraries, for instance, typically feature large sections of popular fiction, while research libraries may offer classical fiction but few titles that you would find on a current best-seller list. If you were looking for vampire novels, for instance, you are likely to find Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic classic, Dracula, but do not expect it to share a shelf with the recent popular Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer.

The books you will use for your research paper fall into two main categories: fiction and nonfiction:

  • Fiction is novels and short stories. Fiction is cataloged under the author’s last name.
  • Nonfiction books, however, are classified in two different ways. Some libraries use the Dewey Decimal System; other libraries use the Library of Congress system. In general, elementary, junior high, high school, and community libraries use the Dewey Decimal System. University and academic libraries use the Library of Congress system.

Your research paper topic determines how you search for a book. Since most research papers deal with topics and issues, you’ll likely be searching by subject. However, it is often necessary to look under titles and authors as well. Consider all three avenues of finding information as you look through the card catalog.

Useful Books to Consider

A reference work is a compendium of information that you use to find a specific piece of information, rather than read cover to cover. Updated editions are published as needed, in some cases annually. In addition to specific books on your research paper topic,  here are some general reference sources to consider:

Encyclopedias. Some teachers will not let their students cite encyclopedias in their bibliographies, but that’s no reason not to use them for background information. An encyclopedia can be an excellent way to get a quick, authoritative overview of your topic. This can often help you get a handle on the issues. There are general encyclopedias (World Books, Britannica, Colliers, Funk and Wagnalls) as well as technical ones. The encyclopedias can be in print form or online.

Guide to Reference Sources. Published by the American Library Association, this useful guide has five main categories: general reference works; humanities; social and behavioral sciences; history and area studies; and science, technology, and medicine. The new editions include online sources as well as print ones. Another excellent reference guide is Credo Reference (formerly Xreferplus), an online product that accesses more than 200 reference books online.

Who’s Who in America. This reference work includes biographical entries on approximately 75,000 Americans and others linked to America. Who Was Who covers famous people who have died.

Almanacs. Almanacs are remarkably handy and easy-to-use reference guides. These one-volume books are a great source for statistics and facts. The World Almanac and The Information, Please Almanac are the two best known almanacs. They are updated every year.

Dictionaries. Complete dictionaries provide synonyms, antonyms, word histories, parts of speech, and pronunciation guides in addition to definitions and spelling. Depending on your topic, you may need to define all terms formally before you begin your research.

How to Use Articles in Periodicals

To get the most reliable, up-to-date, and useful information, you will want to use a variety of different reference sources. You will also likely use articles from magazines, newspapers, and journals as well as online sources and books to find information for your research paper.

Periodicals include all material that is published on a regular schedule, such as weekly, biweekly, monthly, bimonthly, four times a year, and so on. Newspapers, magazines, and journals are classified as periodicals.

  • Newspapers and magazines are aimed at a general readership.
  • Journals are aimed at a technical audience.

Finding articles in periodicals that are relevant to your topic can be a bit trickier because they tend to be indexed in separate databases organized by subject.

Electronic look-ups provide the fastest and easiest way of finding articles, allowing you to search on the subject and keywords to zero in on your topic. Frequently, you begin at the same search form that you would use to find book titles. However, articles are usually found through databases that require a bit more searching because you may have to access more than one database to find what you are looking for.

To find articles and essays on your subject:

  1. Review the list of databases and periodical indexes that are available at your library.
  2. Identify the databases that might address your topic, such as Business Source Premier, for business articles, or MEDLINE for biomedical literature.
  3. If you have difficulty finding an appropriate specialized database, use one such as Academic Search Premier or JSTOR which cuts across numerous categories.
  4. Go to the search screen for your database.
  5. Enter keywords to begin your search.
  6. Select logical titles from the results that you receive.
  7. Click on each title to retrieve the article citation.
  8. Read the abstract, or summary, to see whether that article contains the type of information you are seeking.
  9. Click to retrieve the full text if it is available electronically or use the citation information to order the article via email or through your library.

One useful way of identifying additional sources of information is to check the sources of quotations and citations in articles that were helpful to you. You then have the author’s name, the title of the article, or the publication in which an article of interest might have appeared and can look it up using the same database you used to find the original article.

How to Identify Appropriate Sources

Whether you found an article online or in print, you will need to evaluate the authority, or importance, of the research material you uncover.

As a general rule, reference texts, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other standard reference sources like Who’s Who or Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations may meet the standard for high school research papers but they are generally not acceptable in college. The information in those volumes is considered “generic”—good for gathering general background
but not unique or authoritative. Specialized dictionaries and compendiums, such as the Physicians’ Desk Reference, a listing of FDA-approved drugs, represent the exception.

University professors prefer “primary” and “secondary” sources. Primary sources are ones with unique discussions of ideas, concepts, trends, events, personalities, and discoveries.
They report findings, set forth arguments, and provide unique insights and conclusions from the authors who wrote them. Secondary sources are materials that use or report on the work of others to provide summaries, analyses, or interpretations of primary sources.

An example of a secondary source would be a book review or an analysis of another work. For example, The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine’s famous essay in defense of the French Revolution, is a primary work. It sets forth his original argument against the French monarchy. An article that mentions the essay in a discussion about the ideas of philosophers in the 1700s would be considered a secondary source.

This is not to say that you should abandon encyclopedias and other standard references. Such sources make great starting points in your research. Not only do they provide
valuable background on the topic you plan to discuss, but they reveal the wealth of information that is commonly known about the subject.

Encyclopedias can also point you to other valuable sources. Encyclopedia articles often contain their own bibliographies that cite the primary and secondary research sources that the encyclopedia writers and editors used to develop the article. Not only will these citations direct you to primary sources that can be useful in your own research, but they come from sources that you know were deemed reliable by the editors of the encyclopedia.

How to Identify Reputable Print Sources

Finding information for your research paper in print sources can be equally as challenging as finding them online. Often the information you seek will be found in a small section of one article that appears in a very large volume. How do you find the information and know it will be useful unless you read the whole thing?

How to Find Good Print Resources:

  • Look up your topic in the book’s index. Read those passages.
  • Check journals and reports for an abstract, summary of findings, or executive summary at the beginning; these highlight the key information in the report.
  • Review prefaces, introductions, and summaries on dust jackets for a quick overview.
  • Read reviews, summaries, and commentaries about books.
  • Check citations in a work to see how well-documented the work is.
  • Read headlines, subheads, and call-outs in newspapers and magazines.
  • Scan graphics and illustrations. Read the captions that accompany them.

How to Read Critically

You cannot write intelligently about a subject if you have not fully read and understood the material you found in your research. This requires “critical” reading. Critical reading means more than reviewing and recording the material. It means pausing to think about it. Ask yourself whether you found the research convincing.Then ask yourself:Why or why not?

There are strategies for critical reading, just as there are for writing research papers. Critical reading requires you to gain a complete and accurate understanding of the material you find in your research so that you can analyze it intelligently and interpret it for others. This means devoting more time to the reading than you normally do when you sit down to casually read a newspaper or curl up with a novel.

Expect to spend more time with a text than what it takes to simply understand what it says.Think about what you read; ask yourself questions about it. Evaluate its logic. Consider alternatives to the information the author presented. Be prepared to turn to other texts if you do not find answers to your questions or if the author’s arguments appear invalid. The more you can inform yourself about your topic and what other writers have said about it,the more you will equip yourself for the task ahead.

Critical reading is challenging so you will want to diminish noise and interferences. Turn off your radio, TV, iPod, and cell phone—anything that is likely to interrupt.Do not check your e-mail or read while socializing with friends. Reading in a quiet environment, and pursuing strategies for understanding eases the process and reduces the amount of time you will spend on research.

Original Research

Although you’ll probably conduct most of your research online or in the library, remember that there’s a great deal of material you can find in laboratories, in courthouses, and in private archives. Consider the possibility of conducting some original research for your research paper.

Read more on How to Write a Research Paper.


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