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How To Navigate a Research Library

Whether you are a freshman, a transfer student, or just someone who has avoided the library until this point, college libraries can seem daunting to newcomers.  Just the size of the building and the sheer number of books surpass most people’s hometown libraries. Additionally, unlike public libraries, which typically use the relatively straightforward Dewey Decimal System, the organization of the books in a college library is not as intuitive. Instead, most college libraries organize their books using the Library of Congress classification system, which prioritizes research over browsing.

The Library of Congress system organizes books primarily by subject matter, instead of genre or author.  This is meant to help people doing research on a subject, because the literature about a subject will all be in the same section.  For instance, if you were looking for books about 14th Century Italian art, you can find the call number for one related book and then on the shelf around that book there will be other related academic literature written by different people and possibly even through the perspective of different disciplines.  This can help the amount of the time you spend searching for books in different sections of the library.

Before you find the section of books you want, you need to find the call number. This is the number the library tapes on the bottom of a book’s spine or the top left corner of a book’s cover to identify where to shelve it. It is nearly impossible to find a book in a research library without the call number.  You can find this number on the library’s electronic database.  The call number is a series of letters, numbers, and spaces that identify the book.  Letters and numbers that are separated by spaces act separately (such as Q 180 or B 62), but in letter and number phrases that are not separated by a space (such as M43 or B688), the letters are like decimals, so B688 will be shelved before B69, because 0.688 is larger than 0.69, whereas B 688 would be shelved after B 69.

Once you understand how these call numbers work, the library is no longer overwhelming.  Instead, it is the means to a seemingly endless wealth of potential knowledge and entertainment!

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Madeline is a fourth year English and History double major at UC Davis. She is currently devoting significant amounts of her time to an honors thesis on modernist poetry. But when she does have free time, she spends it going on long runs, watching historically based dramas, and trying to be a better cook.
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