3 Tips for Using Online Library Catalogs

The Catalog by AeisLugh on DeviantArt


Library card catalogs have come a long way since the days when a trip to the library meant flipping through index cards filed in wooden drawers. Today, online library catalogs provide researchers the opportunity to locate books, read comprehensive descriptions, conduct online searches through search engines like Google, and then place those items on hold. Online library catalogs help family historians find they need wherever they may be, in order to plan research trips to libraries near or far.

So what are some tips for using this vital resource? Read on!


  1. Become Familiar with the Card Catalog

The obvious change to the old style library card catalog is the additional ways to search for the subject you are interested in. Books are now searchable by the title of the book, the author/s of the book, the subject, and by keywords.

Online card catalogs provide several options as you look through your search result list.  Each card catalog entry includes additional options to find materials as well as the ability to conduct your search on the Internet. The card catalog entry will also allow you to easily search for other books from the same author or on the same subject. Card catalog entries may also offer the option of searching on Google, or Bing for the search term, book title, or author you have typed into the library catalog search.

The other benefit to today’s online card catalogs is that they provide comprehensive information about each individual book, including reviews and in some cases a link to a digital version on Google Books, or other online digital book sites. From the card catalog you can also learn more about the status of an item, whether it is available for checkout, interlibrary loan, or if it is a reference item.

As you search for materials, card catalogs allow you to tag books you are interested in and then print that list or email it to yourself. This can be a helpful way to start creating a bibliography of books that can be used in your family history narrative, as a research log, or for source citations in your genealogy database.


  1. Searching For a Book

So now you are looking at the website for your local library and are ready to conduct a search for some items. Now what? First you need to determine what you want to find.  If you are looking for a specific book and you know the book’s title or the author, you can search by those terms.  Otherwise you may need to conduct a more general search, one that encompasses every book they have on a particular subject.

In this case you can try a keyword search.  A keyword search is different than a subject search in that you type in relevant words that are then matched with words in the title, author or subject of a book. Just as you would form a search on an online search engine, make sure that you search on words that best describe what you are looking for.  Do not use a, an, the, and, or.  Also, don’t use a long sentence to describe what you need.  Just choose 2-3 words that best describe what you are looking for.  If you are researching Methodist women in Nebraska, try searching on “Methodists”, “Methodist women” and “Methodist Nebraska”. If you try a search and don’t receive the results you need, try using other words that describe what you are searching.


  1. They Don’t Have the Book, Now What?


Maybe you have searched the catalog and have talked to a librarian and the books you need are not available through your local library.  Now what?  You could enlarge the scope of your search by trying other library catalogs.  One online catalog you should always use is WorldCat (www.worldcat.org). WorldCat is a catalog of 10,000 libraries with 2 billion items. The great thing about WorldCat is that you enter your zip code when you search, and WorldCat will provide information about the nearest library to you that has the resource you are interested in.  Not only does WorldCat list books, but it also lists archival materials, audio recordings  and dissertations.

When you find the books you need for your research you can ask your local reference librarian about the possibility of borrowing them through interlibrary loan.  Not every library participates in the interlibrary loan program, and there may be a fee per book that you borrow, so ask your librarian for details.

Library catalogs have come a long way. One of your first steps in pursuing a research project should be checking out an online library card catalog for materials that will assist you in uncovering your ancestors’ stories.



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