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University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

Searching for information: a practical guide

Physical sources

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.

Most of this guide is about finding information online, because the internet has really rather a lot of information: far more than we could squeeze into the library buildings. But the internet doesn't have the monopoly on information. A lot of information has not made its way into the digital world. And you may well have to interact with some of it.

In this section we'll explore some of the places where you might interact with physical sources of information. But we'll start with the actual mechanics of navigating a physical text.

Searching for information in a physical text

You're probably pretty used to searching for information using a search box on a computer, but finding information in paper form might be trickier. Here's some pointers:

Using the index

At the back of most academic books you should find an index. Or maybe even more than one index (it's easy to get caught out by that!). The index attempts to list all the topics referred to in the book (or at least all the relevant ones), alphabetically with page references. The word used in the index might not specifically appear on the referenced page, but there should be something on the subject somewhere there. That something is not always significant or obvious so it may take some scanning to find. If the index references a range of pages (e.g. 110-141), then the topic will likely feature quite heavily in that section, whereas a reference to a single page might perhaps mean it's just a passing mention. That could help you prioritise where to look first.

Indexes are usually put together by humans, not by computers searching the text, and so are usually a lot better at picking out the relevant references in the text and disregarding red herrings. If you can't find the topic you're after in an index, think of some other words for that topic that might have been used instead — a thesaurus might help.

Using the contents

If the book doesn't have an index, it might at least have a contents page. This will be near the start of the book. Skim-read the contents to see if there's a section dealing with what you're looking for.

Flicking through the text

We decided to illustrate flicking through the text with a free video of someone doing just that, which we turned into a slightly annoying animated gif. The pages flick by, and then flick by again. And again. And again.

Flicking through a book or journal is a really useful research method, and something that's much harder to achieve with online texts. Open the book, gather a bunch of pages with your thumb, and then gently release the pressure to let the pages cascade before your eyes. Or just turn a small group of pages at a time (like fast-forwarding through a video or a podcast to get to the interesting bits). You can take in a surprising amount of information just by flicking through a book (though it obviously helps if the book is in your first language, and has pictures or nice clear headings).


Flicking through books is especially useful if you're browsing a shelf of books for information.

Of course, once you've found a bit of book that might be useful, you'll need to read it. But you needn't read all of it. You can scan the page for something useful, and skim-read when you come across anything relevant. We've more on those techniques on our "Reading academic articles" guide:

In the rest of this section we'll look at how to use two particular repositories of physical information sources:

They're by no means the only holders of physical sources of information. Galleries and museums are another obvious pair, but physical information sources are genuinely all around us in the real world. Everything you see and hear is a source of information of some kind or other.