How to Use Libraries and Archives for Research

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For some students, one of the biggest differences between high school and college is the amount and depth of research that is required for research papers.

College professors expect students to be quite adept at researching, and for some students, this is a big change from high school. This is not to say that high school teachers don't do a great job of preparing students for college-level research—quite the contrary!

Teachers fill a tough and essential role in teaching students how to research and write. College professors simply require students to take that skill to a new level.

For example, you may soon discover that many college professors won’t accept encyclopedia articles as sources. Encyclopedias are great for finding a compact, informative accumulation of research on a specific topic. They are a great resource for finding the basic facts, but they are limited when it comes to offering interpretations of the facts.

Professors require students to dig a little deeper than that, accumulate their own evidence from broader sources, and form opinions about their sources as well as the specific topics.

For this reason, college-bound students should become familiar with the library and all its terms, rules, and methods. They should also have the confidence to venture outside the comfort of the local public library and explore more diverse resources.

Card Catalog

For years, the card catalog was the only resource for finding much of the material available in the library. Now, of course, much of the catalog information has become available on computers.

But not so fast! Most libraries still have resources that haven’t been added to the computer database. As a matter of fact, some of the most interesting items—the items in special collections, for instance—will be the last to be computerized.

There are many reasons for this. Some documents are old, some are hand-written, and some are too fragile or too cumbersome to handle. Sometimes it’s a matter of manpower. Some collections are so extensive and some staffs are so small, that the collections will take years to computerize.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to practice using the card catalog. It offers an alphabetical listing of titles, authors, and subjects. The catalog entry gives the call number of the source. The call number is used to locate the specific physical location of your source.

Call Numbers

Each book in the library has a specific number, called a call number. Public libraries contain many books of fiction and books relevant to general use.

For this reason, public libraries often use the Dewey Decimal System, the preferred system for fictional books and general use books. Generally, fiction books are alphabetized by the author under this system.

Research libraries use a very different system, called the Library of Congress (LC) system. Under this system, books are sorted by topic instead of the author.

The first section of the LC call number (before the decimal) refers to the subject of the book. That is why, when browsing books on shelves, you will notice that books are always surrounded by other books on the same topic.

Library shelves are usually labeled on each end, to indicate which call numbers are contained within the particular aisle.

Computer Search

Computer searches are great, but they can be confusing. Libraries are usually affiliated or connected to other libraries (university systems or county systems). For this reason, computer databases will often list books that are not located in your local library.

For instance, your public library computer may give you a “hit” on a certain book. On closer inspection, you may discover that this book is only available at a different library in the same system (county). Don’t let this confuse you!

This is actually a great way to locate rare books or books that are published and distributed within a small geographic location. Just be aware of codes or other indication which specify the location of your source. Then ask your librarian about interlibrary loans.

If you want to limit your search to your own library, it is possible to conduct internal searches. Just become familiar with the system.

When using a computer, be sure to keep a pencil handy and write down the call number carefully, to avoid sending yourself on a wild goose chase!

Remember, it’s a good idea to consult the computer and the card catalog, to avoid missing a great source.

If you already enjoy research, you'll grow to love special collections departments. Archives and special collections contain the most interesting items you'll encounter as you conduct your research, such as valuable and unique objects of historical and cultural significance.

Things like letters, diaries, rare and local publications, pictures, original drawings, and early maps are located in special collections.


Each library or archive will have a set of rules relevant to its own special collections room or department. Normally, any special collection will be set apart from the public areas and will require special permission to enter or to access.

  • You may be required to put most of your belongings into a locker as you enter the room or building where special items are held. Things like pens, markers, beepers, phones, are not permitted, as they could damage delicate collection items or disrupt other researchers.
  • You may find special collections materials by doing a normal library search with index cards, but the search process may differ from place to place.
  • Some libraries will have all the collections materials indexed in their electronic databases, but some will have special books or guides for the special collections. Don't worry, someone will always be on hand to guide you and let you know where to find materials that sound interesting.
  • Some material will be available on microfilm or microfiche. Film items are usually kept in drawers, and you can probably retrieve either of these yourself. Once you find the right film, you will need to read it on a machine. These machines may differ from place to place, so just ask for a little direction.
  • If you conduct a search and identify a rare item you'd like to view, you will probably have to fill out a request for it. Ask for a request form, fill it in, and turn it in. One of the archivists will retrieve the item for you and tell you how to handle it. You may have to sit at a specific table and wear gloves to view the item.

Does this process sound a little intimidating? Don't be frightened off by the rules! They are put into place so that archivists can protect their very special collections!

You'll soon find that some of these items are so intriguing and so valuable to your research that they're well worth the extra effort.

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Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "How to Use Libraries and Archives for Research." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Fleming, Grace. (2021, February 16). How to Use Libraries and Archives for Research. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "How to Use Libraries and Archives for Research." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).