Why You Still Need a Library Card - How to Find Out Anything (2012)

How to Find Out Anything

4 Why You Still Need a Library Card

For information, for research, for learning, or for entertainment, there is no other institution quite as willing to share the wealth as a library. Whether we are talking about a few books on a shelf in a small school library or an immense research institution like the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library, where else can you get so much valuable stuff simply by asking for it? You don’t need me to point out the obvious. Anytime you have a research question, one or more libraries should figure in the solution. Even with the Internet, a library and its resources still play a critical role in most research projects.

Even with the Internet, a library and its resources still play a critical role in most research projects.

My inclination was to start off a chapter describing libraries with some high-toned words from Shakespeare or Wordsworth or some other poetic heavyweight. Those plans were dashed when I serendipitously came across the ideal quote, courtesy of that late poet of late capitalism, Malcolm Forbes. Said the money-larded bard, “The richest person in the world—in fact all the riches in the world—couldn’t provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.” The quote is not flowery, but then neither was Forbes. As a no-nonsense guy with an eye for a bargain, Malcolm was no sonneteer, but he gets the value of a library exactly right.

Right from the beginning, get rid of all the associations in your mind about libraries as dead dusty places staffed by those who delight in telling people to shut up. And stop thinking of a library as a place for dull, soul-draining work. Picture it instead as a place overflowing with limitless information that is there waiting for you to take whenever you need it. It’s a place where you can find dedicated staff who have devoted their lives to mastering the techniques of research and who not only will help you but won’t demand a fee for the assistance. Today’s library is no longer some dingy backwater; it’s a technologically advanced center for information retrieval, as up-to-date with online services as any place you’ve ever been. And while most libraries lack the coffee lounges of some bookstores, libraries don’t get bent out of shape if you walk out the door with the goods without paying. Don’t try getting away with that at your local bookstore. In short, libraries are better places than ever before to read and research.

Get to Know Your Library

Knowing how to work the library correctly is critical for those who want to find out anything, and things have changed since you first stepped into one in elementary school. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that your first step is to equip yourself with a library card. By simply filling out a brief form and showing some ID, you stake your claim to an endless bounty. A library card gives you entrée into a club that is at once the most and least exclusive in the world. There are no velvet ropes to prevent anyone from joining the information giveaway party; libraries rightly pride themselves on being the most democratic institution imaginable. Public libraries are indeed public and will let anyone in the front door. What is exclusive about them is the grand collection of valuable goods gathered inside, available only to cardholders. Armed with a library card, any member can choose to do nothing with it or instead avail herself of all the services that most libraries provide. The choice of how little or how much value you derive from the library is yours. The library itself will be happy with whatever you decide. But get a library card. This is not negotiable. No researcher can survive long without one.

A library card gives you entrée into a club that is at once the most and least exclusive in the world.

The Catalog

Once you have yourself a library card, the next thing to do is find out what that card entitles you to. The library’s catalog is your guide to everything. But before we get into the details, let us pause to remember the passing of every library lover’s favorite feature, the card catalog. The digital age claimed the card catalog as one of its lamentable casualties. Long a standard feature in all libraries, the rows of wooden drawers filled with index cards is now as quaint as the eight-track player and the leisure suit. The card catalog was not only the best way to look up a library’s holdings in the old days, it provided an undeniable tactile pleasure; flipping through the index cards made all that information concrete. The cards reliably did their prosaic job of pointing to books. Sometimes, patrons who came before you might have annotated the cards with advice on other sources to search and added recommendations that turned the otherwise plain bibliographic record into a miniature study guide. Even the catalog itself was lovely: those long oak drawers in a handsome cabinet were a grand piece of furniture; old library catalogs are in demand as antiques, as they are gradually retired from their service. Clearly, electronic catalogs are the new standard, and they have powers that the old system couldn’t provide. Still, the old card catalog is sorely missed. But dry your tears, set the sentimentality aside, and forge ahead, because progress has its own comforts to offer.

The modern library catalog offers more than a road map to what a particular library holds. It can also provide links to useful websites. Often the catalog will tell you about books and materials held in associated libraries, so you are not limited to seeing only one library’s collection. It is fast and accurate, and, thanks to the modern miracle of hyperlinking, cross-referencing interesting information doesn’t take all day.

All catalogs index the collection by the eternal triumvirate of search possibilities: author, title, subject. These search fields haven’t gone away, but they are not the only way to search. E-catalogs open the door to far more elaborate and far more precise searching. The reason for that is the widespread adoption of an electronic system for cataloging that makes each individual bibliographic record a marvel of concise detail.

The bibliographic record, which is the professionally crafted description of an item, is a minor literary exercise in itself. The record provides the author, title, and subject information that you would expect, but it also delivers a deftly written description of an item’s physical dimensions, its call number, its International Standard Book Number (ISBN), its Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), identifiers (unique numbers that identify a specific work), hyperlinks to other resources (when relevant), and many other technical details. Needless to say, the catalog also describes non-book holdings. Significant parts of most library collections are periodicals, such as magazines, journals, and newspapers; database services, like ProQuest and EBSCO; and subscription websites. Catalogs account for these types of sources and make them findable too.

Today, the most widely used standard for cataloging books is the MARC record. Librarians use the MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging) system and its fill-in-the-blank form as a way to make sure that the description of the items in the collection follow certain rules. This approach leads to consistency in the records and results in a dependable system that readers can use to search holdings quickly. Librarians like the system because a single title, which might be held by thousands of different libraries, can be cataloged by one person or the publisher but can be used by all libraries that contain that item in their collection.

The elegance of the MARC record is that if one computer can read the data, other computers can too. For all the charm of the idiosyncratic cards in the card catalog, MARC records take much of the guesswork out of cataloging a book or other item, so that descriptions are predictable. The net effect is that you, the reader in search of a book, have a reliable method of finding that book in any number of sources. The town library of Ballplay, Alabama, catalogs its books exactly the same way as does the Library of Congress. The process is less quaint than the old days, and it’s plenty faster and more accurate to boot.

I introduce the MARC system as a way to show you how to mine the details of a book’s record to help you better find your way through a library catalog. Locate an item of interest—the kind of title that makes you say, “Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I am looking for”—and the bibliographic record will help you find additional titles from that book’s extended family. You could search for similar items by author to find other titles by the same person or by keyword to see what other works fall within the same category. You can also quickly search for a specific holding by using a book’s unique identifier: its LCCN or ISBN; for a periodical, use its International Standard Serial Number (ISSN). Depending on the catalog, you can create very precise searches by mixing and matching search terms for things like names, electronic titles, publication information, series information (for periodicals), and the identifying numbers.

The beauty of the catalog is that you can look over the entire library landscape in one place, quickly mastering a vast domain with some very simple searches. A well-designed catalog will help you locate what you need with a minimum of fuss. It also will help you request the materials you’ve found, point you to additional materials of interest, and save you many hours of fruitless Internet searching.

The beauty of the catalog is that you can look over the entire library landscape in one place, quickly mastering a vast domain with some very simple searches.

If you want to try something interesting, cruise around the catalogs of libraries located worldwide by connecting via Libdex to any of the 17,000+ libraries who allow visitors. If you’re looking for a book to tell you everything you need to know about Tasmanian devils, chances are good that a library in Auckland will be able to suggest a title or two. You may not be able to put your hands on the book itself, but knowing that a title exists provides the information you’ll need to find it in a local research library or by interlibrary loan.

And as much as it pains me not to be able to recommend the library for everything, both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble have very powerful book catalog software that any first-rate library would envy.

Special Services

Libraries, contrary to appearance, are not book warehouses. Row upon row of books just sitting there on the shelf may look like a still life, but libraries are, in fact, surprisingly lively places with a great deal of work going on behind the scenes and in the stacks themselves. And librarians do much more than dust the books and make sure that they are put back on the shelves in the right order. Most libraries make available a wide range of services designed to boost your research. The breadth of these special services depends on the size and budget of your local institution, but these services are generally available from most municipal libraries. It is very much worth your while to check in with your local branch to see what they have on the menu.

Most libraries make available a wide range of services designed to boost your research.

Articles and Databases

Part of any researcher’s due diligence is seeing what has been written in the press. Google News is a fair way to look through newspapers, but you will serve yourself better by using a commercial service designed specifically as a searchable archive of newspaper and magazine articles. Individuals who have access to a Nexis account are fortunate. It is the gold standard for searching newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and news wires for articles and news stories, but it does not come cheap. Nexis does sell limited access to individuals, but it prefers to sell access to companies and institutions rather than to a single person. The next best thing is access to articles databases, and this is where a library card comes in handy.

Many libraries will provide their cardholders with access to services that allow you search articles for free. Exactly what services are available vary from library to library—the New York Public Library lists more than 600 electronic indices, but you should check your library’s website or ask the staff about which databases are available. Depending on the service, the library will give access to their cardholders; in other instances, the library subscribes to the service but limits access to the library staff. In either event, you should certainly keep your eyes peeled for these standard databases. Most libraries have them, and they can do the heavy lifting for research into current and historical information.

· America’s Historical Newspapers (1690-1922): A searchable electronic version of old newspapers that once were archived in microfilm, microfiche, or as a yellowing pile of newsprint on some library shelf just waiting for the right moment to burst into flames. This archive is easy to use and less likely to combust.

· Credo Reference: A one-stop reference service that pulls information from encyclopedias, dictionaries, biographies, and other works with a single search.

· EBSCO Research Database: A database containing the searchable full texts of newspapers and magazines.

· ProQuest: A commercial database that serves up doctoral dissertations, academic journals, and genealogy information as well as abstracts for the natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities, and technology.

The mother of all databases is Dialog, now owned by ProQuest. It began life in 1964, in the early days of the Space Age, as a way to help engineers from what was then the Lockheed Missile and Space Company find science and engineering articles and help them navigate the company’s immense data files. For librarians of a certain age, Dialog was the first electronic database they learned. It predated all the now-standard online services like Nexis, Factiva, and Westlaw and was a standard tool long before the web was invented. Mastering the arcane Boolean logic and commands needed to retrieve data from the service felt like learning some occult language from the Middle Ages. Today, Dialog is still a large-scale research service that comprises hundreds of individual files collectively containing more than 2 billion individual records. The records in each file are abstracts or full-text articles from many academic disciplines. Exactly what Dialog contains is too detailed to list here, but the complete rundown of the files and what each contains is online in the “Dialog Bluesheets.” The name is a holdover from the print days, when descriptions of what was in each file and the methods for searching were printed on, well, blue sheets of paper. (Giving things clever names was not Lockheed’s core competency.) To this day, Dialog is still a powerful search tool. Access is usually restricted to the library staff, but they can search on behalf of patrons.

Digital Materials and Special Collections

Libraries are not just about books any more. One of the great things about the digital age is how much can be easily digitized. Google Books, of course, is working on the books and will continue to do so, depending on how the lawsuits progress. More to the point, every publisher is tossing and turning at night figuring out how to get his e-books onto every computer tablet and e-reader around the world. Gutenberg had moveable type; today, it’s portable type.

Thanks to the wonders of digitization, libraries not only catalog items but can also deliver e-files to users anywhere in the world. The Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress, for example, makes available more than half of its million items in downloadable format. (They also will scan previously unscanned materials from the collection on demand for a small fee, download the high-resolution file onto a CD, and mail it to patrons.)

In digital format, this immense repository of Americana can offer the researcher immediate access to a remarkable array of historic materials. Not to be outdone, most library systems in the United States offer patrons thousands of downloadable e-books, audiobooks, and videos. And when you can play The Best of Snoop Dogg on your home computer courtesy of your local library, you understand that libraries are no longer the starchy old tombs of popular imagination. Many libraries even offer Freegal, a service that allows patrons to help themselves to three free songs each week from Sony Music.

Manuscripts and Historical Archives

In addition to providing access to current information, a library also serves as an archive. You should be able to locate repositories of original documents and historical artifacts like maps, diaries, deposited collections of papers, and other materials held at libraries throughout the country. Biographers would have no source material if a library did not accept the accumulated letters and papers of accomplished individuals. Historians rely on humble materials like diaries, commercial records from ordinary businesses, and collections of personal papers to reconstruct daily life from years gone by. And newspaper archives, the so-called first draft of history, can contain clues to people, places, and things that might otherwise be forgotten. In this way, a library preserves the past and makes it accessible to the present.

In addition to providing access to current information, a library also serves as an archive.

Basic Services

Borrowing Privileges

The very essence of a library, especially the public library, can be found in its policy of lending books and other materials to its cardholders. This is what makes a library one of the greatest democratic institutions in the world: You only have to ask, and the library will give. If there is a better social idea than providing citizens with unrestricted access to the recorded knowledge of the world, I have yet to hear it.


When the Internet was still a novelty, libraries across the country were gearing up for it, and by 2005, according to the American Library Association, almost 99 percent of public libraries offered free access to computers and the Internet. Providing the public with computers is still a basic service from all libraries. You can always count on finding a computer in a public library when you need one.

Interlibrary Loan

Many libraries can borrow materials from other area libraries. That way, a smaller library can serve as a branch of a larger one. If your local branch doesn’t keep a particular book in its collection, you can request it from another library that does.


When you are really in a fever to read a book, it’s aggravating to discover that every time you try to borrow it, it is still off the shelf. You can take a measure of revenge against the slow readers in your neighborhood, who take out books and then keep renewing them, by placing a hold on the book. The library then will not allow the person who currently has the book checked out to extend his or her sign-out period.


At college and university libraries, professors may place certain materials in reserve for the classes they teach. Reserves usually have a brief circulation time, if they circulate at all, so that students have a reasonable chance of accessing materials in a timely manner.

Reference Services

So far, we mostly have discussed how to find out information on your own. From time to time, even the best researcher gets stumped and needs some assistance. When you are facing down a brick wall and not finding what you need, call in the professionals. Reference librarians are every researcher’s secret weapon. The men and women who staff the reference desk aren’t there just to give directions to the rest room. They are skilled in the craft of finding information and bring a professional’s experience and judgment to the task. Asking a question of a reference librarian is not bothering them; far from it. There’s nothing that a self-respecting librarian likes better than a challenging question. To them, research is not a task, it’s a calling, and the satisfaction of locating an answer to a difficult question is the most rewarding part of the profession. So don’t ever be shy. Got a question you can’t quite answer? They’ll be glad to help you.

Reference librarians are every researcher’s secret weapon.

Recommendations and Guides

Librarians understand how daunting it is to search through a catalog of millions of items. To simplify the process for their patrons, they often write guides to specific types of information, describing where and how to find materials on a selected subject. These guides are known aspathfinders. A good pathfinder in the library can be a lifesaver—it will cut right to the chase. Such guides encapsulate the librarian’s hard-earned expertise in a simple, digestible format. Ask for them by name (as in, “Do you have a pathfinder on meteorology?”).


Before you can get a reference librarian working on your research, you, of course, must first get in touch with one. Contacting a librarian these days could not be any easier. The simplest way to ask a librarian a question is to go to the library and ask in person, but they can also be reached via email, chat, or phone. Check your local library’s website for an “Ask a Librarian” link. No matter how you contact the library, staff will be happy to take your request. There is no guaranteed turnaround time for most requests, but research librarians usually will set right to work on your question.

A librarian offers more than a free set of hands; you’re getting the services of a skilled professional. You also are taking advantage of the librarian’s access to many more resources than you probably have on your own. Chances are good too that the reference librarian will quickly know how to approach a research question effectively. You will be talking to someone who knows where to look for information. Really good research librarians make research look like miracle work; years of experience and mastery of the sources gives them insight that most casual researchers won’t enjoy. In short, make the librarian your ally and partner in research. Best of all, with the exception of certain premium services, all this know-how and far-ranging access to resources is free.

Premium Services

If you have a budget or work for a company that can spend some money for research, you can take advantage of the premium services of a large library. In this way, smaller companies that cannot afford to keep a librarian on staff can still essentially hire a library staff and access a vast collection without the expense of actually operating a library. The following are some of the fee-based premium services offered from the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library (NYPL); check with your local system to see what’s available to you:

· Reproductions for editorial or commercial use: Some libraries have access to photos, artwork, and other graphic materials that can be used in patrons’ commercial publications.

· Document delivery: The NYPL can photocopy or electronically scan books, newspapers, documents, and other items for delivery by email in pdf format. Not only can librarians mine the riches of their own huge collections but they have access to other suppliers, allowing them to “obtain virtually any document,” as the NYPL promises.

· Digital imaging: The Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress has one of the coolest services in the bibliosphere: on-demand imaging. Should you need to get your hands on a high-resolution copy of a Mathew Brady photograph of Abraham Lincoln or a map from 1908 or any of the other half million scanned-in items from the library’s extensive collection, they will oblige.

Special Collection Libraries

For more in-depth research, especially when looking in great detail for a specific subject, it is helpful to rely on the services of a special-interest library.

The municipal library is probably the most familiar type of library to the casual researcher. But for more in-depth research, especially when looking in great detail for a specific subject, it is helpful to rely on the services of a special-interest library. Special collections tend to have more generous selections of a limited subject matter, and the staff can provide more expertise in that area than a generalist in a less focused institution.

As the term implies, special libraries exist that either restrict the type of information they hold to a specific subject or are attached to another institution, such as a museum or academy. In fact, larger museums, halls of fame, and professional associations almost always maintain a library for use by their members or patrons. In many cases, curators will happily field questions from the general public.

When you need to have an obscure fact checked, these specialty libraries are a godsend. Some years ago, a friend of mine who is an avid collector of the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett heard that Beckett, while on a visit to New York in 1964, attended a New York Mets double-header. He asked me to track down the box score for the games. Two phone calls later, the researchers from the library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, had the answer. And while helping research a lawsuit involving Seneca Nation of Indians land claims against the state of New York, the librarians from the Museum of the American Indian (in the Bronx, no less) were an invaluable help. They provided collected works from the 1800s, including original treaties and scholarly studies of how the Seneca Nation operated at the time the original land deeds and leases were signed, much of which went into the legal papers and exhibits submitted to court.


The traditional library, for hundreds of years known fundamentally as a collection of cataloged books, is changing drastically. As a society, we are reimagining how we store knowledge and distribute it. The epochal shift from print to the web and from the idea that information is stored “just in case” to a world in which we can put our hands on the things we need to know “just in time” is a profound change that has happened over the past thirty years. As technology drives these changes, amendments to the law will also remake the way most researchers go about their business.

The utopian idea of a knowledge commons turns on the idea that knowledge is a necessity and ought not be owned, like air and water. Rather than adhere to the traditional idea of ownership of information through copyright protections, information producers instead seek to make their learning widely available at little or no cost. Exactly how scholarship and research will be shared in a world that still jealously guards information remains to be seen, but the idea is already under discussion at a number of universities. Libraries will be players in this new world by helping connect researchers to the resources or through facilitating the storage and dissemination of this brave new world of information.

Name your field of interest and chances are good a special library exists that contains both a useful collection and a knowledgeable staff to help you find very specific information not otherwise available online or at a general interest library. A good way to find out about special collections is to check a directory of archives. Most large libraries subscribe to ArchiveGrid, ArchivesUSA, or Archive Finder, which can point you to 5,000 repositories of archival information in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

Public Library of Science

A perfect example of the new era in information access is the Public Library of Science (PLoS). This noble nonprofit effort aims to make “the world’s scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource.” To do that the organization enlists researchers to make their papers accessible without restriction. Subscribers pay a small fee to PLoS to help finance the operation, but any subsequent use is free to any other user who wants to look at or cite the research.


• Use Libdex to find out if any libraries in Zimbabwe have books on French architecture. Do libraries in China have anything on pangolins?

• Find a library that collects cookbooks and recipes. (Note: There are a number of them.)

• Identify libraries that hold doctoral dissertations, with an emphasis on the social sciences.

• Contact your local library and find out what special reference services are offered by asking one of the reference librarians. While you are talking to the researcher, get a name and an email address so that you always have a research contact at your disposal.

This effort is the practical result of the initial Internet cri de coeur that “information wants to be free.” What started with a few dedicated graduate students typing book texts into an antique computer has now become an international effort to make human learning not the exclusive property of the elite but the birthright of all literate citizens.

Other Special-Interest Libraries

The following list of twelve special-interest libraries will give you a taste of the types available. The predominance of branches of my hometown New York Public Library in this list is not an act of urban chauvinism but is instead a reflection of the long years of civic support New York City and its diverse citizens have provided for such specialized libraries. Check your nearest big-city system for any special collections it might hold or have access to.

Arthur Lakes Library—Colorado School of Mines


EEA Library—AirVenture Museum


June F. Mohler Fashion Library—Kent State University


Cine Deloria Jr. Library—National Museum of the American Indian


New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center


Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum Library and Archives


Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—New York Public Library


Science, Industry and Business Library—New York Public Library


U.S. Military Academy Cadet Library at West Point



Archive Finder




“The History of Dialog”




Library of Congress


Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress


New York Public Library




Public Library of Science