In the library

To get a broad overview of a subject in the library, you'll read and browse general sources of information discovered using three strategies: reference room browsing, catalog browsing and shelf-browsing.

Let's say you're making your first trip to the library to get ideas for your research paper topic. You've probably thumbed through your course syllabus and coursepack, so you have some references to particular authors, issues or topics which will be covered.

Start in the reference room, with some general sources. For a literature course, you may be reading encyclopedia articles about various authors or looking at biographical dictionaries. For a history or science course, you'll be reading a general encyclopedia or a special subject encyclopedia. To find out what current issues are important in your subject, browse current periodicals. Ask the reference librarian for a recommendation of sources to use for general reading in your subject area.

Search the library's catalog after getting some advice about specific subject headings to use (see Searching the catalog by subject and keyword for details, p 22). Browse the list of books and materials held by the library within several different subject headings related to your course. Note how many items are held and whether they are look interesting to you. Are they general or specific? Are they current? Are there any periodicals listed? Are there interesting items other than books?

Look at the subcategories used in the catalog. You can learn a lot about a subject simply by looking at how the it's broken down into subcategories. This will show you what issues the experts who work in this field consider important enough to treat separately.

Last, take a trip to "the stacks" and browse the shelves in your subject area to see what titles are available. The shelf arrangement usually comes from either the Dewey Decimal system (p.25) or Library of Congress (p.27) and will be somewhat different from the subject headings used in the library catalog. On the shelves, books with similar subjects should be located near each other. Use the call numbers of several of the books you found in the catalog to direct you to a particular shelf in the library. Look at the books around that book, even going into different call numbers. Pull some books off the shelf and look through the table of contents and index to get an idea of topics covered and how the topics are organized. Do a little skimming and look for interesting issues or ideas.

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