Module 5: Catalog as Reference Source

The catalog can be your most effective reference tool.

The Library Catalog

No matter how many resources you examine every day, you just cannot know all of them! The catalog is an organized list of the library’s collection and helps you find resources in different ways. It’s both a good beginning to your search strategy and a resource in itself. It is useful in several ways.  You can:

  • Use the catalog to find books which will have sections on your topic, even though the book is not cataloged under that topic.
    • Example: When a patron asks for information on German Shepherds, and the catalog shows nothing under that specific breed of dog, you would then look up “dogs” and check the general books on the subject for chapters on German Shepherds.
  • Sometimes use the catalog creatively to find a book which will help on more obscure topics.
    • Example: Something on old egg beaters might be found in books on kitchen implements, general antiques, metal tools, folk designs, or histories of technology, among others. It is good practice to check first under the most specific heading you can think of. If you do not find what you need, broaden your search.
  • Use entries for other books on the same subject to help you find the correct subject headings to use.
    • Example: If you do not know the subject heading, you may do a keyword search. If the term you used is not in a subject heading but appears in the title of a book, from that catalog record you can often get the correct subject headings to use.
  • Use the catalog to quickly locate miscellaneous information such as authors’ names and dates. Or use call numbers from sources that you found in your search to determine a good place to start browsing the shelves.


Remember the card catalog? Accessing records for library resources is easier online, but you are still tied to the location of the machine! Locating terminals throughout the library is one way to loosen those ties. A more recent concept is roving access, using laptops, iPads, or other tablets connected to Wi-Fi.

Another catalog challenge is connecting the library collection to Web resources. One method to bring all resources together is to use Dewey (or whatever classification system your library uses) to organize links to recommended Web resources at the reference workstation and on the Web. Dewey can be used to organize Web links for users, reinforcing the connection between catalog subject headings and categories of related Web resources. Increasingly, your catalog may connect to the web and be part of an integrated library system or ILS.

Major Point: The catalog is a good place to start your search and can help you find books, subject headings, or author names and dates.


  1. Locate an encyclopedia of science and/or technology in the catalog.
  2. Locate a handbook of chemistry and/or physics in the catalog.
  3. Look in your catalog for books about Ohio. Look closely at the catalog records for 2 or 3 of these items. What can you learn about dates for the authors? What can you learn about other subject headings to help you find more resources?