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Explaining the library’s catalog record: are you getting the most out of your searching?

Posted on: | by Guest Blogger | 1 Comment

[The following post was written by University at Buffalo librarian Molly Poremski.]

Library catalog records can be confusing. Trust me, I know. I used to create them for a living. As you work on your final papers, let me shed some light on the mysterious format of the library catalog record.

First of all, what do I mean by catalog record? I’m referring to the page that appears when you search for a book.  Essentially, it’s a description of the book you’ve selected. On this page, you’ll find the essential information like: author, publisher, date of publication and subject headings. Back in the day, all of this information used to be stored on print catalog cards.

But, are you just looking at these records or using them to your advantage? The pages can serve as tools to help you find more items on your topic.

Let’s say I’m looking for a book about the Freedom Riders in the South during the 1960s. To search, I go to the library’s homepage and select the “Catalog” tab*, so I’m searching just for books, not academic journals articles. I type in the phrase “freedom riders” and look at my results.

*You are more than welcome to search the “Everything” tab, but your search results will include results from our journals, shown on the left.

The first result seems to be a DVD, so I choose the second title, which is a book, which is what I need for class.

Let’s have a look at this page, or “record”:

The first line of text is the title of the book followed by the author’s name (we call this the “title proper” and the “statement of responsibility” in the cataloging business).

Let’s look at the other elements, or “fields” of this record:

Main author: This is how the author’s name appears in most library catalogs in the English-speaking world.  Did you know that if you clicked on “Arsenault, Raymond”, you would find all the books in our library that he’s written?

Format: This field lets us know what type of item we’re looking at. If this were an eBook, or an academic journal, or a DVD, this is where you’d be able to tell .

Language: This is pretty self-explanatory. However, if you’re looking for something specifically in another language, like a translation of a work, this area is very helpful.

Published: Let’s say that your professor wants you to find the most recent publications. This is the field that would tell you when the book was published.

Subjects: Our library, along with most other academic libraries, uses something called LCSH, or Library of Congress Subject Headings. These terms, which work like tags, are standardized phrases used by libraries all over the country.  As the name implies, subject headings let you know what the book is about. Similar to the “Main Author” field, you can click on the subject link and it will take you to other books in our catalog on that topic.

However, there are a few neat things you can do with subject headings. If you were to click on “Civil rights workers”, it would take you to a listing of all books in our catalog about civil rights workers, whether they are about women’s rights or South Africans working to end apartheid.  Clicking on the words/phrases that follow that subject heading will give you more specific results.  Clicking on “History” will get you a list of Civil rights workers in the United States, which could include abolitionists from the mid-1800s. If you clicked on “20th century”, it would make your results even more specific, and you are more likely to hit upon results about the Freedom Riders in the South in the 1960s.

If you have any questions about searching the catalog or any other aspect of the library research process, be sure to ask a librarian. We are here to help and look forward to working with you!

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One Response

  1. Great explanation….