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University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

Searching for information: a practical guide

Libraries and physical books

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 searching electronic texts, but we do still buy printed materials too! On this page we'll look at how to find a book in a library, and how to find information within that book...

Searching for information in a physical Library

In our increasingly online world, it's easy to forget that for centuries we've been storing information in physical Libraries. And we've been retrieving information from them too...

Searching the catalogue

One way of finding information from physical books is to use the Library Catalogue. Our catalogue is called YorSearch, and we've got a whole page about how best to use it:


A shelf of books from the media section

Catalogues like YorSearch do let you browse the collections in various ways. You can do a subject or keyword search, or even look at a virtual version of the shelves. But it can be a lot easier to just go and look at some real life shelves of books!


Most libraries (our own included) are organised by subject, so all the books on a particular shelf or set of shelves will be on the same or similar themes.

Finding the shelves you need

If you're doing research on a particular topic, you might find it useful to find the shelves for that subject and scan them for anything that looks like it might be relevant. If you're not sure where to look, try to find at least one book on the subject in YorSearch and take a note of its location. If we've got one item on a subject, the chances are that there are a lot more sat on the same shelf!

Sometimes there will be books on a similar topic in more than one area of the library, either because that topic crosses over into another similar topic that's shelved somewhere else, or because of the format of the book itself: for instance, we often shelve big books (Quarto books) on a separate run of shelves to normal-sized books, to make better use of space, and really big books (Folios) in another section of even bigger shelves. So a book about cats could be at XL 6 - Ordinary in the Biology section on the third floor, or it could be in XL 6 - Quarto in the Quartos section on the third floor. And it could be in A 79.3 on the second floor if talking about cats philosophically, or any number of other locations depending on what aspect of cats it is you're researching. There might even be cat books in special collections housed elsewhere in the Library. But most of the cat books will probably be in that XL section, so that might be the best place to browse first!

Asking a Librarian

It's absolutely legitimate to ask library staff for help in finding something (and we like it when you do!). It's like asking a shop assistant where the vegan cheese is this week. It's kind of what we're here for. You can ask at the Library helpdesk for help finding a particular collection, while your Academic Liaison Librarian is your main contact for help with identifying specific resources for your subject.

Searching for information in a physical 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.

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

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:

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