How to Locate a Book in a Library

A library is a big place, filled with thousands or even hundreds of thousands of books. How do you find just the books you need? A librarian is always there to assist you, but you might want to find a book on your own by browsing the shelves or checking the catalog, which is usually in a computer on a table, easy to access and use.


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    Investigate. If this is your first time in a library that is new to you, take some time to look around and get to know the place. Notice the signs in the building and the overall system. If it's a larger building, look for maps or directories near the entrance.
    • Notice that shelves and areas are marked with the types of materials that are in them. Pay particular attention to sections that interest you.
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    Consult the catalog. Many libraries now have computerized catalogs available on computer terminals throughout the building. Some might still have an old card catalog on index cards in drawers. Either way, there are some standard ways to search a card catalog.
    • Title search. If you know the book's title, you can search for it. In a paper card catalog, you will search alphabetically. In general, though, ignore "a" or "the" if it is the first word. Thus, The Count of Monte Cristo will be filed alphabetically under "Count". Computerized catalogs vary, but you will usually select a title search and type in at least the first few words of the title.
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    • Author search. If you know the author of the book, or if you are interested in other works by a favorite author, you can search for that. Authors are usually listed by their last names.
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    • Subject search. If you know what you want to read about, or you're searching for particular information, but you don't know the title of a specific book, try a subject search. A subject that is too broad may turn up too many results, including other related subjects. A subject that is too narrow may not be cataloged. If you don't find quite what you want the first time, try searching on different words.
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    • Keyword search. Most electronic catalogs will let you search on a keyword or words. For example, searching on the keyword "French" would find any book with that word in the title, be it about French cooking, French tourism, or French kissing.
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    Notice whether your book is checked out. Many computerized catalogs, especially, tie in to the circulation database to tell you whether a book is on the shelves or is unavailable. If it is checked out, seeing that now can save you a trip.
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    Make notes. When you find the book you want in the catalog, write down the call number and any other information about the location of the book. Most libraries offer scraps of paper near their catalogs. This information tells you where to find the book.
    • Remember that Non-fiction books will be shelved separately by some kind of classification system (the most popular are the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification system.) Each book is given a number according to its subject matter. The books are then arranged in order on the shelves by these numbers.
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    • Fiction books are arranged alphabetically by the author's last name. If you look for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by title, the catalog will tell you to look for the book in the Fiction section under Adams. Some libraries divide out certain genres of fiction, such as mystery, romance, westerns and science fiction. If your book is one of these, write that down, too.
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    Go find the book(s) you have chosen. Follow the signs in the library, then the labels on the ends of the shelves, and then the labels on the spine of each book to locate your book.
    • Remember that if you have found a non-fiction book on a topic in which your are interested, only some of the rest of the library stock will also be in the same area. Oversize books and special collections may be housed elsewhere.
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    Consider new possibilities. If you're not sure what to read, there are many ways to find suggestions and possibilities in a library, too.
    • See what other books your favorite authors have written. Read the summaries or browse in the books to see if they interest you, and consider checking them out. Usually a writer that has written one good book probably has written more.
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    • If you can't remember any particular author, just browse the shelf, picking up random books, reading the information inside the cover, reading the first page or more, to see if you are interested in the book. You can narrow it down by browsing in a particular section, genre, or subject that interests you.
    • Look at the library displays to see if any of the books featured there catch your interest. Also look around to see if there is a section or display for new books.
    • Try the reference section. The library has books there that list, categorize, index and rate books.
    • Tell a librarian what you like to read. he/she may be able to make some recommendations.
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    • Look in the periodicals section, where you can find magazines with book reviews like Publisher's Weekly or even People and Rolling Stone. You could also check out the New York Times book reviews section. Or, see what magazines you gravitate towards and find out if there are books on those topics.
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    • Check out the computer databases. Some U.S. libraries subscribe to a huge online database about books called NoveList, for example.
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    • Look for award-winners. There are lists available of everything from Pulitzer winners to book club features. If you'd like to read something outside of your usual genres, award winners are a great place to start.
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    • Reread an old favorite. Harry Potter is still light, fun reading.
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  • Just because a book isn't a best seller doesn't mean it isn't good. Bestseller lists can be misleading since the list measures how many copies of books get bought by the bookstores and not by bookstore customers. Since the library is free, this is a good chance to try out new authors and lesser known books.
  • Many libraries offer much more than just books. Browse around and ask about the offerings at yours. Here is a sampling of other items that are available in libraries:
    • Audio books on tape, CD or MP3.
    • Music recordings on CD.
    • CD-ROM computer software (often instructional).
    • Magazines and newspapers.
    • DVD and VHS videos.
    • Framed artwork.
    • Pamphlets, brochures, maps, atlases.
    • Telephone directories.
    • Engraving tools.
  • Ask the librarian to show you a list of the best sellers or check the external links below.
  • Unless you are in a hurry, relax and enjoy being in the library, perusing the shelves, getting information and reading through the books.
  • If you're still not sure what you want, check out a few different books and explore in more depth them at home. Don't overdo it, of course, but one of the great things about libraries is that you can take home three books and read only the one that really catches your interest. If you're looking for specific information, it's an especially good idea to try several different books on the same subject and only read the relevant sections in each.
  • If the book you want is checked out, you may be able to find out when it is due. You may also be able to put a hold on the item so that it will be set aside for you when it is returned. The librarian can also try to locate it at another library. You would then have the choice to obtain it at the library if it is nearby, or the librarian may be able to get it for you on interlibrary loan if it is only available at a distant location.
  • Ask the Librarian about different groups, events, or speakers that will be at the library.
  • If you have trouble finding the book you want, ask the librarian for assistance. The Library staff are there to help you.
  • There are comfortable chairs in the library. Find a few books, that you think might interest you, take them with you, sit and read them.


  • Make sure you have a valid library card in each library, or you will not be able to check a book out. If you do not have one, then before looking for a book, sign up for one. It takes only a few minutes of your time. Make sure you have something with your current address on.
  • Mark your calendar immediately when you check out a book and get in the habit of making a weekly check of what materials you have checked out. Libraries stop being free very quickly if you don't return materials on time.

Things You'll Need

  • A list of the authors you are interested in
  • A list of previous books that you enjoyed reading
  • A library card

Sources and Citations

  • Project Gutenberg, an online library of free e-books whose copyrights have expired.
  • Librivox, a project to produce and provide free audio recordings of public domain works

Article Info

Categories: Libraries