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Using a Library

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For some students, one of the biggest differences between high school and college is the amount and depth of research that is required for research papers.

College professors expect students to be quite adept at researching, and for some students, this is a big change from high school. This is not to say that high school teachers don't do a great job of preparing students for college level research—quite the contrary!

Teachers fill a tough and essential role in teaching students how to research and write. College professors simply require students to take that skill to a new level.

For example, you may soon discover that many college professors won’t accept encyclopedia articles as sources. Encyclopedias are great for finding a compact, informative accumulation of research on a specific topic. They are a great resource for finding the basic facts, but they are limited when it comes to offering interpretations of the facts.

Professors require students to dig a little deeper than that, accumulate their own evidence from broader sources, and form opinions about their sources as well as the specific topics.

For this reason, college-bound students should become familiar with the library and all its terms, rules and methods. They should also have the confidence to venture outside the comfort of the local public library and explore more diverse resources.

Card Catalog

For years, the card catalog was the only resource for finding much of the material available in the library. Now, of course, much of the catalog information has become available on computers.

But not so fast! Most libraries still have resources that haven’t been added to the computer database. As a matter of fact, some of the most interesting items—the items in special collections, for instance—will be the last to be computerized.

There are many reasons for this. Some documents are old, some are hand-written, and some are too fragile or too cumbersome to handle. Sometimes it’s a matter of manpower. Some collections are so extensive and some staffs are so small, that the collections will take years to computerize.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to practice using the card catalog. It offers an alphabetical listing of titles, authors, and subjects. The catalog entry gives the call number of the source. The call number is used to locate the specific physical location of your source.

Call Numbers

Each book in the library has a specific number, called a call number. Public libraries contain many books of fiction and books relevant to general use.

For this reason, public libraries often use the Dewey Decimal System, the preferred system for fictional books and general use books. Generally, fiction books are alphabetized by author under this system.

Research libraries use a very different system, called the Library of Congress (LC) system. Under this system, books are sorted by topic instead of author.

The first section of the LC call number (before the decimal) refers to the subject of the book. That is why, when browsing books on shelves, you will notice that books are always surrounded by other books on the same topic.

Library shelves are usually labeled on each end, to indicate which call numbers are contained within the particular aisle.

Computer Search

Computer searches are great, but they can be confusing. Libraries are usually affiliated or connected to other libraries (university systems or county systems). For this reason, the computer databases will often list books that are not located in your local library.

For instance, your public library computer may give you a “hit” on a certain book. On closer inspection, you may discover that this book is only available at a different library in the same system (county). Don’t let this confuse you!

This is actually a great way to locate rare books or books that are published and distributed within a small geographic location. Just be aware of codes or other indication which specify the location of your source. Then ask your librarian about interlibrary loans.

If you want to limit your search to your own library, it is possible to conduct internal searches. Just become familiar with the system.

When using a computer, be sure to keep a pencil handy and write down the call number carefully, to avoid sending yourself on a wild goose chase!

Remember, it’s a good idea to consult the computer and the card catalog, to avoid missing a great source.

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