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University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

Skills Guides

Searching for information

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 to go about using it:


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.

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:

Searching for information online

I'm Feeling Lucky

In subsequent sections of the Skills Guides we'll talk a lot about searching for information online, particularly in terms of academic sources, so we won't get too involved here, but let's consider some basic principles:

Keyword matching

At their simplest, most search boxes essentially work on a principle of 'keyword matching': if you type cat into a search box, the computer will search for the word "cat" and return any documents or pages that contain that word. Unlike with the index of a book, pages mentioning kittens or felines won't get returned.

It gets more complicated if you have two words: cat litter might only search for the phrase "cat litter" or it might search for the words "cat" and "litter" separately, depending on how the search engine has been programmed (its algorithm). So a file or page talking about "a cat having a litter of kittens" may or may not be among the results.

Most internet search engines (for instance Google) tend to have very advanced search algorithms which are very forgiving and which will second-guess what it is you're actually looking for. Sometimes they even seem to work better if you phrase your search as a question! This 'fuzzy' approach to searching can be useful, but it relies on the search engine making the right guesses (which won't always be the case!).

In academia we'll often find ourselves using far less sophisticated search engines which don't have anywhere near the same money and time invested into them as Google and so don't have the ability to guess what we're looking for. This does at least give us a lot more control over the search, and a lot more clarity about how that search is working. But we will have to be more deliberate and more careful about the search terms we use. We might even have to carry out multiple different searches before we find everything we need.

But that's fine. All searching is an iterative process. You try a search, you see what you get, and then you modify your search to see if you can get something closer to what you're after.

Digging through the results

Depending on what you're searching, you may have hundreds of search results to deal with. Again, you'll want to scan and skim the stubs of information you're given to get a rough idea of how relevant they are. Whatever sorting algorithm is being used to display your results, you're probably going to need to go beyond the first page. You might even need to go right through to the end. So being able to make quick judgements about the worth of a result is a skill well worth developing. We'll try to give you a few pointers on that sort of thing in some of our other guides.

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