Library Research

Finding Materials in a Library

Physical materials are categorized by a numbering system, and digital materials are easily searchable on library computers.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the best practices for finding library materials

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • All physical materials such as books and DVDs are labeled according to a system, such as the Dewey Decimal Classification. The label corresponds to the material’s location in the library.
  • Digital materials, such as databases, are easily searchable from the library’s computers. The homepage will help you determine which source to use and will then direct you to the source.
  • Librarians remain one of the best ways to find materials in a library. Their knowledge and expertise can make research must easier.

Key Terms

  • Dewey Decimal Classification: A system that sorts and organizes all of a library’s physical materials. The most common categorization system in American public libraries.
  • database: A structured collection of data, typically organized to model relevant aspects of reality (for example, the availability of rooms in hotels), in a way that supports processes requiring this information (for example, finding a hotel with vacancies).


Finding the correct information in a library can be a daunting task given the sheer number of resources. To make things easier, libraries have adopted classification systems.

Searching for Materials

There are a number of ways to begin the search for materials.

  • You can just jump right in and start searching which is great if you know where to look, but frustrating if you don’t.
  • You can go to the library computers which are linked to the library database of material. This allows you to put in the name of the author, the title, or a keyword to find out what materials might contain the information you are looking for.
  • You can also simply ask a librarian. Even as more and more information is digitalized, asking a librarian remains one of the most effective ways to find information.

Finding Physical Materials

Physical materials (e.g., books, manuscripts, CDs) are categorized by a series of numbers and letters. The main systems of classification are the Dewey Decimal Classification, the Library of Congress Classification, and the Colon Classification. Though most public libraries use the Dewey Decimal Classification, all of the systems work in essentially the same way.

Each physical piece of material is assigned a number that relates to a hierarchical structure. The first numbers will be the broad subject (e.g., 300 is economics), the following numbers correspond to a subcategory (e.g.,.94 is European economy) and so on.


Dewey Decimal Categorization: Library books have a sticker with a categorization number on them. Books are sorted and organized based on the numbers.

Since the materials are placed in order on the shelves, finding the material is a matter of just finding the section with the corresponding codes.

Of course, not all materials are on the shelves at all times. Libraries can reserve a copy or order it from a partner library. They will contact you when the material comes in so you can come pick it up.

Finding Digital Materials

To use the library’s digital materials, such as e-books or subscription-based databases, you need to use one of the library’s computers. In some libraries, it’s enough to just be using the library’s wifi, but either way, the materials are not accessible without being at the library.

The library computers should provide links to different databases with a brief description of what the database is good for. Then, you can go to the database and search the materials just as you would on Google.

Types of Material in a Library

Libraries offer physical, digital, and human resources which can help you research subjects efficiently.

Learning Objectives

Discuss how borrowers can take advantage of physical, digital, and people resources in libraries

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Librarians can help you determine the best resources to use and introduce you to any technology or software you might need to access them.
  • Libraries have physical resources such as books, maps, manuscripts, and periodicals.
  • Libraries can provide free access to digital resources such as e-books and databases that are often inaccessible without a subscription.

Key Terms

  • database: A structured collection of data, typically organized to model relevant aspects of reality (for example, the availability of rooms in hotels), in a way that supports processes requiring this information (for example, finding a hotel with vacancies).

Although libraries are normally associated with books, they have numerous other research resources, many of which are beyond the scope of what is easily accessible at home or on the Internet. Moreover, while libraries have a plethora of both physical and digital resources, some of their most valuable assets are their human resources. Librarians are knowledgeable about what information is accessible from each resource and can make your research efforts easier and more efficient.

Physical Resources

Libraries house a number of resources that you can locate, handle, and use immediately. These physical resources include periodicals, magazines, newspapers, maps, and manuscripts, though some may be used only at the library. In addition, many libraries provide media resources such as films, prints, CDs, cassettes, and videos that you can access during your visit. Of course, libraries also have books on a variety of subjects and often have book-sharing arrangements with other libraries, too. If you need a book that is not on the shelves, ask a librarian to order it for you, if possible. Some libraries can also arrange inter-library loans of media resources, too.


Melk Abbey Library: Books are the primary resource in a library, but there are many more resources that can aid in research.

Digital Resources

The advent of digital resources has greatly expanded the walls of libraries. Now, libraries have resources such as e-books and online databases which are not limited to physical locations within the library.

Databases, in particular, are useful for researchers because they allow you to search for information by topic, category, author, date or other useful traits. However, many of the best databases are subscription based, so unless you work for a company that has a subscription or attend a university with one, the only practical (and affordable) place to get access is in the library.

Databases may specialize in a certain field such as medicine, business, or engineering. These databases provide access to not only historical information, but also information that is not easily found through search engines like Google. The in-depth and historical information makes these databases one of the most valuable resources in the library.

Human Resources

Because libraries can house and/or access so much information, you may not discover what you need until you have spent a lot of time exploring what is available. Enlisting the help of a librarian can often save you time because librarians are trained to evaluate all of their libraries’ resources, including the best ways for you to access them and whether they are the appropriate given your specific needs or interests. Librarians can also help you quickly learn to use technology or software, such as microfiche readers or database search programs, which you may need to complete your research.