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Getting Started - a Guide to How the Library Works: Books

Step-by-step information about getting research done in the library (or wherever you happen to be).

Finding Books

In brief, our library catalog is the search engine that will tell you what books we have and where they are shelved. You can search by "all fields" (that is, the information in the catalog, not all of the contents of the book) or by author, title, or subject. Because catalogers describe the subject of books as a whole - rather than going into detail about everything the book contains - your searches will work best if you keep your search terms quite general.

Once you have a list of results, look for the call number - a letter and number combination that indicates where the book is shelved. Some books are shelved on the upper level and the rest are on the main floor. (There's more information available on how call numbers work. They take a little getting used to.)

Once you've located a book that looks interesting, browse the shelves around it. The Library of Congress classification system used in this library puts books on the same subject together; because you can look directly at the books while choosing, browsing is an effective way to discover useful sources.

Catalog Search Box

Search for Books, Music, Videos & More

Advanced search · Books, videos, and music

Why Doesn't This Library Have Any Fiction?!?

We do! We just don't shelve it in alphabetical order the way most public libraries do. To find fiction, search the catalog by author or title. If you aren't sure what you want, take a look at our Browsing Collection of popular and fairly recent books or check out books recommended by our students and faculty at our LibraryThing account.

Search Inside Books

The contents of some books can be searched online, though not read or printed for free. Both Amazon and Google Book Search can help you identify exactly where a phrase occurs or when a character is mentioned or check the accuracy of a quote. However, only parts of the books are included and often you can't see more than snippets of context.

Where Books Come From

law books

image courtesy of Mr T in DC

How books are published depends on the audience. "Trade publishers" - the segment of the industry that produces books for a general audience - tend to look for books that will appeal to a lot of readers because they are a for-profit business dependent on sales. Small publishers may focus on a particular niche audience. Scholarly book publishers, such as university presses, tend to publish books that are fairly specialized and carefully vetted by other scholars. These are the books that are often most useful for research. One common type of scholarly book is the "edited collection" - an anthology of essays by different authors on a common topic. College textbooks digest and summarize a great deal of information and are produced with a classroom market in mind. Libraries add very few textbooks to their collections, preferring to use their resources for primary and secondary sources that generally retain their value for a longer period of time.

In general, books take quite a while to write, edit, and produce, so they are not the place to look for the very latest information. However, they can be a good source of in-depth information and often provide context that may be absent from other kinds of sources. It's worth noting that, while books go through an editorial process, they are not fact-checked by publishers. Editors raise questions and ask authors to double-check, but they don't employ staff to verify everything. Getting the facts right is the job of the author.

Increasingly books are becoming available on the web in electronic form. Be aware, however, that a large number of the full-text books available free online are not current. They can be put online because they are out of copyright; the newest ones date back to the first years of the 20th century. Even in the case of classics, a newer print edition provides up-to-date translations and notes that aren't available online.

Searching Library Catalogs

Library catalogs describe the books in a particular library's collection (as well as material in other formats: videos, sound recordings, and so forth). That description lets searchers find books by their titles, authors, or subjects. Our catalog includes books, videos, music recordings, and articles, with books in our library usually pushed to the top of the results list.

It's relatively easy to search for a book with a known author or title. Subjects are trickier. There are two different approaches you can take. One is to search "anywhere in record" (sometimes called a "keyword search"). The other is to use the subject headings that catalogers use. These are often not the words you would think to use. For example, catalogers don't use the phrase "Native Americans" - they use "Indians of North America." Instead of "film" they use "Motion Pictures." 

A useful strategy is to find a book that looks promising in the catalog and examine its subject headings - which you can't see until you click on the title and then on "details." These alternative terms may be useful in formulating a new search. And if you're truly stumped, ask a reference librarian.

You can do a quick search from the library's home page. Once inside the catalog refine your search by using the limits on the left-hand side of the page. Particularly useful are format (limit to printed books, for example) or publication date (you may want to focus on books published in the past ten years). The default is to search libraries around the world, but you can limit your search to just books owned by our library.

A word to the wise: It's important to use both catalogs and browsing the shelves to find what's inside our books. Subject headings will help you find which sections of the collection are best for browsing; only while browsing will you be able to choose which books will be best for your purposes.

Where Are the Books?

The first thing you need when finding books is their call number - the numbers and letters that tell you where the books are. Write them down as you search the catalog - or you can send them to you in an email. Sometimes people find it easiest to snap a photo of the screen with their phone.

 The call numbers will tell you where to head next. Most of the books are part of the "general collection" and the ones that have call numbers starting with A - PQ are shelved on the upper level. General collection books starting with PR - Z are on the main floor. You may notice that some books are in different collections and are in different places.

  • Children's collection; Young Adult - lower level, at the back, in the center
  • Oversized collection - upper level, at the back, on the west side
  • Browsing - main floor, near the front entrance
  • Hasselquist - main floor, in the center
  • Reference - main floor, along the west wall
  • Government Documents - most of these are links to online versions; some are in print on the lower level, shelved with a different system than books. Feel free to ask library staff for help.

For more details, see our maps of the first floor (lower level), second floor (main floor), and third floor (upper level). You can also get more information about how call numbers work.

Borrowing Books From Other Libraries

As you search the catalog you'll find books in other libraries. It's easy to request them, and they usually will arrive within a week or so. Click on the title and then click on "request from another library." If that button is missing, it may be an ebook, and those aren't loaned. Try clicking on "editions and formats" to see if there's a print version you can request instead.

book interlibrary loan

Ask Us!

Librarians are here to help!

  • Visit or call the reference desk: A librarian is generally at the desk or "on call" Monday-Thursday 10:30-4:30 and Friday 10:30-2:30 (Fall & Spring) (507-933-7567)
  • E-mail a librarian: folke@gustavus.edu (please include your name and the best way to contact you)
  • Schedule a consultation: online request form
  • More information: Visit the Ask Us! page
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