So you wanna do library research, eh?

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Posted 16 Sep 2007 in Soulville

If your first thought is “YES!” then either a) you already love library research or b) you have no clue what’s going on when your professor or boss tells you to find something. If your first thought is “Stupid”, then you probably fit in the b category too! But never fear! I am here to help.

After doing extensive library research as an undergrad, for the three public health internships I have completed, and as a grad student, I know a lot of actual “in house” library services AND can help you find internet materials (online journals, search for books online, etc). Ready to learn? Let’s go!

IKBLC Interior 93
Creative Commons License photo credit: UBC Library Graphics

You know, it’s that building that, like, nobody enters until they are desperate

The library actually exists. It really does. Whether it is the city, town or county library or your campus library, it is a great place for a) peace and quiet, b) research materials and c) that book you’ve really been wanting to read but haven’t been able to find. And for the most part it’s all FREE!

Libraries tend to have all the textbooks your teachers want you to read, definitely have massive resources like dictionaries, thesauruses (not dinosaurs), encyclopedias, massive bound books of academic journals, magazines (yes, they probably do have the latest Elle or Sports Illustrated [side note – my alma mater‘s football team was on the cover of the Sept 10 issue!]), study guides, movies, music, microfilm, and a lot of people that can help you find ANYTHING in the entire world.

Librarians are really smart but very personable and have knowledge about what all you need to know and a lot of stuff you don’t. Unlike your professor, they can actually hold a conversation in language YOU can understand.

Say you need to learn Excel, Powerpoint, Word, Photoshop, etc. Your local library probably holds classes in these programs. My local libraries have classes to learn great research citation programs like Endnote (see below) and also to learn databases – so if this tutorial doesn’t help, go check that out. It can never hurt to learn more.

In elementary school, you may have learned to look up books in paper card catalogs. Fun right? Well now, most libraries have switched to putting their card catalogs online – the call numbers you would find on those slips are paper are now searchable online and you can find it pretty much the same way – buy call number, by author and by book title. Now you can also search by date of publication, edition or a combination. And no more digging through a million drawers to never find the card. It’s very easy to find what you’re looking for and many libraries will tell you other places to look if they don’t have it.

My Collection of Apple Books
Creative Commons License photo credit: aagius

Ok, your professor said you need to find a book called The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Where do you go to look this up? Well, from home OR from the library, you can go to your library’s web site and look this up. Usually on the homepage there will be a search box to type directly into. The default might be to search for keywords but in this case if you typed “fountainhead ayn rand” you’ll probably find the book on the first try. It’s all about what search terms you use. Search terms are important for books and for articles. You can try any combination of words that all have to do with whatever you are looking up. If it is a specific thing, you can look up like I just mentioned. If you’re just looking for books or articles on a particular topic, such as exercise physiology, in the search box type that topic.

Now you’ve come to a results page – it lists that there are 5 copies of the book – it says the location of the first one is in the stacks (the big rows of books that a lot of people unfortunately don’t venture down anymore), the location of the second is in the large text section (many libraries keep large text and braille books in a separate area for easy access), the location of the third is on tape (usually cassette tape, though many libraries certainly are moving into the CD revolution, 20 years too late), the location of the fourth and fifth are at two different alternative sites (many libraries have sister libraries or other libraries in their system that you get the results for at the same time as the actually library you are searching – pay attention to this because you can get it on interlibrary loan if it is not available on campus at the time).

You click on the result for the first and it says it is checked in and you want to make sure nobody else grabs it before you. Put a hold on it – some library web sites allow you to log in with your library card number or student ID and put the book on hold. There are tutorials available on your library website. If you are in the library, just strike out in search of that book – write down the call number and the floor of the library it is on (if it tells you). If you have to do it the fun way, you can either ask a librarian what floor that book is on, what section that book is in, or any other questions that can get you pointed in the right direction. Or you can go to the stacks and look at the endcaps to see what call numbers are on each row. They are in alpha-numerical order so it should be simple to find.

Simple enough, right?

Creative Commons License photo credit: .michael.newman.

I need articles – now

Looking up articles is fun. To me at least – it’s simple and fool proof. Sometimes you can look up articles in the same place on your library’s website as books or they will have a link that leads you to where to go searching. In any case, articles can be looked up through author name, title, publication date, journal name, etc etc. If you need that article on exercise physiology as it relates to adult females, you can use search terms such as “exercise physiology adult” “exercise physiology women” “ex phys adult women” “exercise physiology” “ex phys” “adult women exercise” and the list goes on.

Sit down and write out every possible keyword you might be looking for, then use combinations of those keywords to search. Sometimes switching up the order of keywords finds different results but usually it shouldn’t matter. Write down all the search terms you used, it will help for future research and if your professor really likes it, you can share.

Also, if you come up with a great list of articles that you don’t necessarily want to print now, but want to get their abstracts (basic info about the article including the methods and results of whatever they did), print the list of results you get as a text file – you’ll be able to check out those articles later and can share with research partners about what you found without having to print a million actual articles and they not be what you were really looking for.

Let’s say you know you need an article from the American Journal of Public Health. If you just went on the internet and searched for the journal (or it’s acronym AJPH) you’ll find it is a paid journal and you can’t access it unless you’re a member. Unfortunately, this is the way most journals are. But never fear! Libraries are awesome in that they usually purchase yearly memberships to the journals just so you can access them.

If you go to your library website and find the area that has journals, you can usually search for the journal name. When it comes up, you can either go to their website through your library website (automatically logging you in to the journal’s website) or look in another database such as Ovid, CINAHL or Blackwell Synergy etc for the article you need. If your library has a subscription to AJPH or to one of those databases, you get the article for free as html full text, text file or PDF. Your choice.

If you’re in the sciences, PubMed is an excellent place to start other than your library’s website. You can search there many of the same ways as other sites, by author name, title of article, keywords, by date, by language, by journal AND (even cooler) you can search for articles by which ones are FREE. Many times I might start searching in PubMed and end up on my library website when I find something that isn’t free but I want it and can get it through my library.

Many times when you go to the different databases to get an article, there will be a link that says “export to citation manager”. Citation managers are EXCELLENT – no more of that making up your own bibliography (which generally requires trying to remember what goes where and all that fun). Citation managers take all that information and put them into a file on your computer (or jump drive or where ever you save it) and allow you to pull them up within the citation manager and export them into your paper where you need them. If you use them to cite your sources, it will automatically number and put them in your bibliography however you have set it up to do this.

Citation managers can be used for any style of writing – APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, Vancouver, etc – and even if you start out doing your citations in MLA let’s say, then your professor says they want it in Turabian, the citation manager can automatically switch every one of them and very quickly. My favorite citation manager is Endnote, which is on every computer at my school and can be bought very cheaply (10 bucks is well worth it) from my school technology office. It’s worth learning how to use, especially the bigger the paper you write.

But what if I’m not on campus? Can I get all this stuff still?

Quick answer: Yes. There should be a link on your library website that says something about connecting from off campus. Usually it requires you log in with your school email and password or log in with your student id or library card number. Once you’re in, you’re in. Most of the time you get unlimited access to things, but sometimes you really do need to be on campus to access something, so if you ever find that perfect article while you’re at home and can’t get it, go to campus and try again (write down where you got it from!). 9 times out of 10, you can actually access it there.


There are lots of ways to grab information that you’ll need to do class or personal research. Use your library for more than sleeping. Use the stacks and databases and never fear! If you really can’t find something you need at your campus or a library that participates in interlibrary loan with your library, as a friend at another school to see if their library has it and if they can send to you. I’ve done that a couple of times – I needed a book and my school wouldn’t order it so I had someone else send it to me and I just mailed it back to them. Of courses, emailing PDF files is easier, but hey.

If you need more help, please go to your librarians. I’m not saying that just because my mom used to work in a library or that my sister-in-law does. Librarians are awesome people. I have seen people with PhDs give librarians invitations to their graduation and even huge gift baskets because librarians know exactly what’s going on and how to get what you need. As always, if you’ve got questions, send em on and if you’ve got other ways you love the library or researching put em in the comments!

I’ll be back next week again (maybe late again, maybe on time – school gets in the way!!!!) with the first part in the web design how-to. It’ll be awesome and fun to write so I hope you all drop in to check it out.

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