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 Find out how to search for journals and newspapers section, p. 23).

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. An excellent tutorial for using a typical academic library catalog system can be found at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library. It's intended for their students, so has some references to entering "fill in numbers" from an answer booklet. Just ignore that part and work through the tutorial, which is Unit 2-Using the Library Catalog (http://www.uwp.edu/library/unit2/) of the library's "Information Skills and Literacy Workbook." The entire series of Parkside's tutorial units and another outstanding tutorial from the Houston Community College System are linked at Library Tutorials (http://www.ipl.org/teen/aplus/linksother.htm#library).

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