Finding and Evaluating Books

By Lauren Pressley

red books

When working on a college level paper, you might hear from professors that you need a certain number of resources. Many times you will be told that you need a certain number of different types of resources. Often, you will be told to find books. Luckily, the library is here to help!

Books can be very useful for research and for finding out more about your topic. It is worth noting that today you have the option to use paper or electronic books (commonly referred to as ebooks). Sometimes the library will have a book in both paper and electronic formats. Sometimes it will have it in one format or the other. If your professor requires a specific number of books for an assignment, it is worth verifying with them if the books need to be paper or can also be electronic. Sometimes the professor assigns you to find books because they want to you learn how to navigate the physical library. Other times they want you to be able to use the catalog to find a book no matter the format.

Why books?

Books are a really important type of publication. They are long forms of writing that convey a lot of information on a topic. They generally have a larger scope than other forms of academic writing. You can often use the introduction of a book to get a good summary of the topic, and specific chapters will often have in-depth content related to your paper.

Because books are broader than other forms of writing, when you are seeking them out you might need to think more broadly about the content. For example, if you are writing a paper on the last years of the Atlantis shuttle, you would probably need to find a book on the shuttle program, on NASA, or on space exploration, and then see if there is a chapter on Atlantis. In this case you would not use the entire book for your paper, just the relevant chapter, but the entire book gives context to the Atlantis shuttle in case you need it.

In fact, many academic books are never read cover-to-cover. You might choose to do so for a topic that you particularly care about. In most cases, though, people read the relevant chapter for their topic, or perhaps just a relevant subsection in a chapter. You can generally trust these small units, though, because for an author to publish a book, they are knowledgeable on the entire subject, and have been vetted by a publisher, and if it made it into a library, by a librarian as well.

Types of Books

There are many types of books. For example, you are likely already familiar with the difference between popular titles, like those you find in bookstores, and scholarly titles, like the ones that make up a majority of the library collection.

Another difference in types of books is between a monograph and an edited book. A monograph is a book written by one author on one topic. These books are focused and maintain one voice. Edited books have an editor or editors who pull together chapters by a variety of authors. These books sometimes address various topics as well, with each chapter focusing on a specific one.

In addition, there are many other categories of books you might come across in the library. For example, academic libraries often include rare books. These books are often kept in a special section of the library and are not circulated, or checked out of the library. In addition to being held in a separate section or room, rare books tend to have more limited hours for access. Because of the special regulations on use, planning ahead to use rare books is recommended. Books are considered rare for a number of reasons including: date of publication, small print runs, unusual materials included in the binding, or other aspects that make the book uncommon or valuable.

Reference resources are typically located in the reference department and are shelved using the classification system of the rest of the library. Like rare books, these books do not circulate so they’ll be available to anyone with a research need whenever the library is open. Reference books are useful resources especially as you begin your research, as they provide both background information and detailed factual data. These books are rarely read cover-to-cover. You can learn more about these resources in the chapter on reference resources.

Finally, sometimes books will be on course reserve. Your professor might reserve a book for your class on course reserve. If they choose to do this, it is because they want the book to be available to the class throughout the semester, and not checked out of the library by one person. You can access the course reserves for your class through the library website and the circulation desk.

Using the Catalog

All libraries have catalogs to help you find materials. At this point, most of them act a lot like a Google for physical objects. You can type in a few words to find relevant materials in the building. Catalogs also include online materials that the library has paid money for you to be able to access them.

Each library has their own catalog, but once you learn to use one, the skills are applicable to any future academic or public library you might use. Generally you can search by a known piece of information (like title or author) or by a keyword. A keyword is just a term that summarizes what it is that you are looking up.

If you need a refresher in searching, see Chapter 4.

What is WorldCat and How Do You Use It?

In addition to a catalog for your own library, you can choose to use WorldCat. You can access it on the free web or a more high-powered version through the library website.

WorldCat is a catalog that includes library records from all the major libraries. If you search for a book in WorldCat, but your own library does not have it, it can tell you the nearest library that does. This is really helpful if you have procrastinated for a paper and really need a book that your library does not have. If another library in the area has it, you can see it there. (If you have a little more time, you can use something called InterLibrary Loan, but we will talk about that a little later.)

Getting the Most Out of Google Books

Google Books is another way to search books from all over. You can access it here: Google Books allows you to search for content similarly to how you would in a library catalog. Once you find a book that is interesting you can sometimes actually read the text in the browser. Depending on the agreement with the publisher, Google Books can let you read the entire book, a few pages, a section, see the sentence where you search terms shows up, or just give you general information about the book.

The general information can be very useful, too. Again, depending on the agreement with the publisher, you can find various levels of information that can help you determine how useful the book is. You will be able to find out the author, publisher, date of publication and other data about the book. But you will often also be able to find a summary, and perhaps a way to search the full text, see images included in the book, read reviews, or see other books that cite the work you are considering.

Google Books is also paired up with WorldCat. So straight from Google Books you can click “Find in a library” and you will be presented with a list of libraries that have the book. You can also use this to find out if your own library has it.

A really good strategy for using Google Books for research is to use it to search for books, create a list that might be relevant, use the full-text features to read as much as you can, then check out the ones that are most relevant so that you can have them to flip through as needed when you are working on your paper.

Physically Locating Books

For more detailed information, see

For more detailed information, see

Physically locating books can sometimes be a challenge. You college library is probably bigger than any other library you have ever used. Luckily, with a little practice, it can become very easy to navigate the system.

Most college and university libraries use Library of Congress classification. This is a little different from the Dewey Decimal System you might have used in school and public libraries before college. One thing to note, though, is that both of these systems put similar subject books together. For example, if you are a philosophy student, you will find yourself in the B section a lot of the time. If you are interested in the sciences, you will often find yourself in the Q section. Interdisciplinary studies, like Women’s and Gender Studies or Environmental Sciences will often find themselves all over the library as relevant titles might be in different sections like business, science, or history. All of this is to say that once you have determined a major, you will find yourself in the part of the library that supports that subject most of the time.

The Library of Congress System uses letters and numbers to help you find your book, to help librarians understand what is in the book without reading it, and to help people put books away. The first letters identify the subject and are arranged alphabetically. The numbers immediately following the letters help refine the subject more specifically, and are read as whole numbers. The third row often leads with a decimal and sometimes a letter. This row is ordered alphabetically and then as decimal numbers. So in this row, “.E55” would go before “.E557.” The last row is the date published, and is arranged by whole number again.

If you ever have a problem finding a book, please ask someone who works in the library. Sometimes a second set of eyes can help. Other times the book has been mishelved or is missing and the library needs to know so they can look for it.

Using Electronic Books

Ebooks are really useful, but can also sometimes be a bit of a pain. We are still in the early days of ebooks. Since we are in the early days people are still figuring how how to publish them, how to provide access to them online, and how to read them, among other things. Yet, at the same time, there are a lot of really relevant ebooks out there that libraries need to provide access to. So at this point we are doing the best that we can do for the users.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase ebook? A Kindle? A Barnes & Noble Nook? Do you think of a website? Do you think of a regular book? At this point any given person might have a different idea of what an ebook is based on their own background.

In most libraries, ebooks can be accessed through the catalog. If you are doing a search, ebooks might pop up in the results alongside physical books. However, with ebooks, if you click a link you will have the option to open the book in the browser. Now, at this point in time, different companies have different ways of letting you access the content. Some have you read it right there. Some have you “check out” the book to your account. Some will let you download them and put them on devices like the Kindle or Nook. Some are strictly for using on your computer. If you are just doing a quick spot of research, you do not need to worry too much about the details. If you know this particular book will be relevant for you for the rest of the semester you might want to look into the extra features you get with the publisher. A librarian can help you figure it out. In fact, we know this is really complicated, so we are ready and waiting for any ebook questions you might have!

InterLibrary Loan

InterLibrary Loan is an awesome service that the library provides for your research. No library can have all books and articles available. Not only would the cost be astronomical, but no one has that much space! Librarians are have special training to help them identify the primary needs of an institution and find the best resources for those needs. In some cases, though, you might have an interest that is just out of scope for the general needs of the college, or you might want a specific title that has not been purchased at that point in time. In these cases you can make use of InterLibrary Loan, or ILL.

ILL is a system libraries use to share materials with other libraries. You can fill out a request, send it, and the library will do its best to get the item for you. If the item is short, like a book chapter, it will often be emailed to you. If you are requesting an entire book, it will come to the library by mail and you will be able to pick it up. As you might guess, you can get the electronic chapter by email more quickly than the mailed book. However, there still might be a short delay in getting the electronic material as in many cases a library staff member at the other library has to take the time to scan in the chapter before emailing it off. It is worth keeping the short wait in mind when using ILL. If your paper is due in three days, your best bet is to rethink your search strategy and find something in your library.

Using a Book

At some point you will have an actual book to use. In fact, you might have whole stack of them. This can be intimidating when you have a limited amount of time to write your paper and you definitely do not have the time to read all the books. Luckily, no one expects you to read that stack of books cover-to-cover for your paper. Here are a few things that will help you make use of them:

Table of Contents

Use the Table of Contents to understand which chapters you might want to read more fully. The table of contents also tells you how the author arranged the book and gives you a sense of the context for the chapters you care most about. The table of contents might also help you refine your paper topic. For example, in the case of the Atlantis shuttle above, you might find that the table of contents shows a chapter for each shuttle in chronological order. This can help you find that the first shuttle was Columbia and give you something to compare and contrast in your paper.


The index is a goldmine for helping you find information quickly. Think of all the keywords related to your search topic and check the index to see if they’re mentioned. You might find that related keywords all are listed on pages close together, which would lead you to find entire sections of the book that are on your topic that might not be easily identifiable within the table of contents.


Appendices are typically extra content at the end of the book. If your book has an appendix you might find interviews, primary source documents, additional charts, or other gems that can provide support to your research. Often appendices are filled with interesting information that can make a significant difference in your research.


Newton is famously quoted for saying, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This saying means that new findings and discoveries are made only because of the intellectual work done by earlier scholars. Bibliographies help you further your research by building on others’ research.

If you find a source that is completely relevant to your topic, take a look at the bibliography. It will include a list of perfectly relevant books, articles, and websites for your topic. Of course, you can’t just use that bibliography for your paper. That would be a form of cheating. However you can use the bibliography to create a list of other sources you should look into. Best of all, you will have all the necessary information for how to find those sources. If you need any help, you can always stop by the reference desk and they can help you determine how to find any books you are most interested in as well as help you request them through ILL.


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