Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

NDL301: Information Fluency: Books

where books come from

book shelves at BPL

photo courtesy of Jan David Hanrath

There are different kinds of book publishers, and the ways they produce books varies depending on their market. University presses produce highly specialized books as part of their mission; they aren’t in the business to make money, but they are under increasing pressure not to lose too much and most of them have to cover their costs with sales. Because they don’t aim for a large, popular readership they may only sell a few hundred copies of a scholarly book. But because they aren’t beholden to market demand they sometimes are the only publishers to cover unpopular topics – which is why so many university press books hit the bestseller lists after 9/11 – mainstream publishers didn’t think there was a market for books about Islam or Middle Eastern politics. In addition to non-profit university presses, some commercial publishers specialize in scholarly books. Those tend to be startlingly expensive – $140 is not an unusual price for a 250 page book.

“Trade publishers” are those who publish books for the general public. They typically don’t publish a book unless they think it will sell at least thousands of copies, and are always on the lookout for bestsellers. A few multinational corporations own the majority of trade publishing in the United States, and the increasing demand for profits is one of the pressures facing the industry. Academic libraries don’t buy most of what trade publishers produce; researchers interested in popular culture often have to seek these out in public libraries (which dispose of them to make room for newer books) or find a library that makes a point of collecting in a particular area (such as dime novels). Though most books sold in this category are published by five big corporations, there are thousands of small presses (such as Graywolf) producing tens of thousands of books annually.

Textbooks for K-12 and higher education markets are also a large part of book publishing, but libraries typically do not collect these except in small numbers. Textbook pricing has become a controversial topic and there is increasing interest in creating and adopting open textbooks. These would be free to all.

book futures

It’s not clear how the industry will adjust to the new hybrid print/digital world. Amazon has been a hugely disruptive force by creating a vast vertically-integrated platform for buying, selling, and publishing books. The major trade publishers have squabbling with Amazon over ebook prices. Amazon had been dumping them on the market, taking a loss in order to sell their reading device and to make ebooks attractive to consumers. (Amazon owns the lion’s share of the ebook market.) The major trade publishers were accused of collusion by trying to set book prices with Apple. The publishers settled, paying large fines and handing Amazon a win. However, lately they have charged high prices for ebooks to encourage consumers to buy print instead. While their share of the ebook market has fallen in response, self-published ebooks sales continue. Some of them fare well enough to land on the New York Times combined ebook and print bestseller list. Recently a successful self-published author of romances turned the tables and became a publisher. Meanwhile, large chain bookstores have been closing and independent bookstores, while holding their own, are a small piece of the overall book market.

The rise of digital books has had a mixed effect on scholars. Libraries can offer ebooks, but they are often difficult to use and expensive. Still, there are some interesting developments in creating open access scholarly books.

finding books in libraries

Libraries don’t deliberately try to hide books; it just seems that way sometimes.

If you know the author and/or title of a book, it’s relatively easy to find in a library. One exception is when an author’s name might be spelled in more than one way. The Library of Congress maintains a name authority file that catalogers use to decide what form a name will be entered under. Catalogs often reroute a non-official author search to the “correct” name.

Searching by topic – Subject Headings

Searching by subject is much trickier than looking for a known book. When searching by subject, these four principles of cataloging are worth knowing.

  • controlled vocabulary – catalogers agree on one subject heading to describe a concept so all books on that topic can be found through that one heading. If you determine what heading catalogers are using, your search will be more successful. Note: it takes times for new topics to be given official subject headings and for archaic wording to be replaced by contemporary usage.
  • scope – catalogers attach a limited number of headings to each book and the headings reflect the content of the book as a whole. Catalogers will try to sum up the book in two to four headings that describe the major subjects covered in the book. Books tend to have broader coverage than articles, so start with a specific concept, but then broaden it if necessary. You may not be able to tell if a book has a chapter on your topic until you go to the shelves.
  • specificity – catalogers will choose headings that are the most specific for the book as a whole. A book about lemons will have the heading lemons, but not fruit.
  • subheadings – a subject will often be subcategorized by place, time period, or approach. Some common subheadings are -history, -psychological aspects, -bibliography, -social conditions, -social life and customs. It can be useful to combine generic subheadings with a subject to narrow it down.

To find subject headings try one of these approaches

  • Use the Library of Congress Subject Headings (aka “the Big Red Books”) to find out whether a term is used by catalogers and if not, which term is used (e.g. Morality – use Ethics) Also examine broader (BT), narrower (NT), and related (RT) terms. There is an online version available for both names and subject headings.
  • Quick and dirty approach: Find a book that looks promising in the catalog and examine its subject headings – usually found toward the bottom of the record. These are usually hot-linked, but are also good clues for which terms may be useful in formulating a new search – e.g. if you want to combine multiple terms in an advanced search. (Note: A hot-linked subject heading may have several sub-headings that make it more specific than you want for your search. Quite often, in a library the size of ours, only one or two books will be on the shelves that match the specifics of sub-headings.)

For detailed information about using subject headings and understanding classification, see Tom Mann’s Oxford Guide to Library Research, 2005, chapter 2 & 3.

Keyword search

In addition to subject headings, most library catalogs offer a “keyword search” or “search anywhere” feature. This is not a full-text search of the book, but a search of the cataloger’s record: words in the title and subtitle, a table of contents if available, notes, and subject headings. It can be a good way to start a search, but sometimes returns too many unrelated results.

Note: if you want to search the full text of books, try some of the full-text searches listed below. (For in-copyright books, you can’t print or copy-and-paste text. However, these tools can be extremely useful if you need to verify a quote or check a reference in an interlibrary loan book you’ve already returned!)


This is the simple concept that when you go to the shelves to find a particular book, other books on the same subject will be shelved nearby.

The flaw in the concept is that all categories reflect the thinking of those who originally created the categories. (In this system, books about women, for example, are shelved after books about families; postcolonial literature in English is shelved at the end of British Literature, like an afterthought.) “New” subjects such as film and computer science are squeezed into a pre-existing categories. Interdisciplinary fields, such as Classics and Environmental Studies, are scattered in different places. And a book on two topics (politics and religion; immigration and literature) can only be shelved in one place.

A shortened guide to the Library of Congress system, used by most academic libraries, can be found online.

NOTE: It’s important to use both catalogs and browsing to find what’s inside books. Subject headings will help you find which sections of the collection are best for browsing; only while browsing will you be able to locate details inside the books.

library catalogs

Our library catalog is tied to library catalogs around the world; you can limit a search to our library or see what other libraries have to offer.

Our catalog now includes both the books, videos, etc. that we own as well as links to books in other libraries and links to articles in our databases.

Searching the full text of books

There are several new ways to search the contents of books online. Compare the following options.

  • Amazon‘s Search Inside feature (only available if you have an account and have bought things from Amazon)
  • Google Book Search
  • Hathi Trust (a new collection based partly on library books digitized by Google)
  • Early English Books Online (a database of all English-language books published prior to 1700 – our library subscribes to this)

Then, just for fun, take a look at The Art of Google Books.

For a somewhat nostalgic view of the limitations of digital books, see Anthony Grafton’s “Digitization and its Discontents.”

experiments with open access books

Apart from mass digitization projects (the first being Project Gutenberg) that tend to focus on out-of-copyright books – except in the case of Google Books, which is still embroiled in a lawsuit with the Author’s Guild.

Individual authors who have made their books available online under a Creative Commons license include Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow. Paul Coehlo rounded up “pirated” copies of his books available on torrent sites and made them available through his own website – and sales of print copies soared.

try it out

Using the Library of Congress Subject Headings (In print or online) look up these subjects. What are the "official" headings?

  • Native Americans
  • Human Smuggling / Human Trafficking (what’s the difference?)
  • Multinational Corporations
  • Undocumented immigrants
  • War on drug

Looking at the Library of Congress Classification outline for a subject area of interest, what strikes you as out of place or missing?

Speed date a book: see how much you can figure out about its subject and scope in three minutes. Look it up in the catalog. Is it classified where you would expect it to be? Would you have chosen different subject headings? Is it searchable full-text in Amazon or Google Books?




reference books

Most reference books are published by commercial publishers, often with libraries as their primary customer. In some cases, an individual or staff employed by the publisher will compile a reference work; in many cases an editor or editorial team will ask hundreds of scholars to contribute articles that they are uniquely qualified to write. Typically these are “signed articles” meaning the author is given credit – and the informed reader will appreciate that they are getting information from an expert. Some multi-volume reference works take years to compile and become the authoritative source in a discipline. Some even become the subject of bestselling books: the compilation of the legendary Oxford English Dictionary is the subject of The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

finding and using reference books

for quick facts and definitions

It’s hard to beat Wikipedia in this area, yet sometimes general reference books can be useful. Kinds of general reference works include:

  • Dictionaries (sometimes specialized jargon, slang, regionalisms, or other specialized approaches to language)
  • Statistical handbooks / compendia
  • Directories (of businesses, organizations, etc.)
  • Biographical sources – either biographical sketches or basics with contact info)
  • Chronologies
  • Quotations
  • Almanacs, handbooks, companions – single volume works with lots of material in small doses. Oxford publishes some excellent one-volume companions.

for well-researched overviews of subjects

The really valuable reference books for researchers, though, are those that digest specialized information in condensed, but scholarly form, with bibliographies of selected readings included. Some examples are:


  • Anchor Bible Dictionary
  • Dictionary of the History of Ideas
  • Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics
  • Encyclopedia of Religion
  • New Grove Dictionary of Art
  • New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
  • Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy


  • Encyclopedia of Prehistory
  • Dictionary of the Middle Ages
  • Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment
  • Encyclopedia of the Reformation
  • Encyclopedia of American Social History
  • Encyclopedia of European Social History
  • Encyclopedia of American Intellectual History

Social Sciences

  • Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology
  • Encyclopedia of Psychology
  • Encyclopedia of Sociology
  • Encyclopedia of Criminology and Deviance
  • Encyclopedia of World Cultures
  • Encyclopedia of Social Sciences
  • West’s Encyclopedia of American Law

Natural Sciences

  • McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
  • Dictionary of Physics
  • Encyclopedia of Bioethics
  • Encyclopedia of Biodiversity

To see more thorough coverage of reference tools, use our guides to resources by subject.

What about Wikipedia?

It’s pretty amazing that an all-volunteer source could become the powerhouse reference that rises to the top of many Web searches as Wikpedia has done within a few short years. Wikipedia can be a useful place to check basic facts. It is a particularly good reference for current information and popular culture. It is less reliable for scholarly approaches to topics (compared to, say, the Encyclopedia of Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association) and for controversial or disputed topics. Some things to bear in mind:

  • The articles in Wikipedia are unsigned – you can’t tell whether the author’s an expert or an amateur, and the entries are constantly edited by various authors.
  • The history of edits in a Wikipedia article are visible. This can help you get a sense of how the article was shaped.
  • Wikipedia values reliable sourcing – the bibliographies are often (though not always) useful.
  • Vandalism and honest mistakes tend to be corrected fairly quickly, though articles vary in quality. The prestigious science journal, Nature, caused a stir when it published the results of a study that found the average science article in Wikipedia contained four errors – compared to three errors in The Encyclopaedia Britannica (a claim Britannica disputes).
  • Wikipedia articles tend to replicate themselves on multiple Websites. If you’re trying to confirm a Wikipedia claim, check other Web sources carefully to make sure it’s not simply a copy of the article.

Since it is a general encyclopedia, it is not a credible source for academic writing (unless you happen to be writing about Wikipedia). But it is an invaluable resource for basic background on many unfamiliar topics.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License