Lesson 5: Typical Catalog Search Options


An electronic catalog is actually a database into which you submit queries to obtain relevant matches. Most libraries and archives already have online catalogs or they are in the process of implementing or converting their existing electronic catalogs to make them accessible remotely via the Internet.

Public and academic libraries, as we’ve seen, use either the Dewey or LOC classification system. The search options in all of these libraries will include, at a minimum, searches of the following areas:

  • Author search – Check the search formats available, such as: last name; last name, first name; partial name or the use of an asterisk ( * ) character as a wildcard to substitute for one or more letters in the author’s name or to truncate a name, as in mor* for author names’ entries beginning with those letters.
  • Title search – Check the formats available here too. Must you enter the entire title, such as for The Source or can you omit the word ‘the’ and simply enter Source to locate the book’s record?
  • Word search or Keyword search – Words and keywords can be used to search throughout catalog records. For example, if you are interested in books on topics related to the Irish, you could enter ‘irish’ and you would be presented with a search results list of materials with that word in the title, in the catalog’s description, or even in the cataloger’s specialized keyword field.
  • Subject search – This type of search allows you to locate materials related to a specific subject area, and this might represent a Dewey or LOC classification area or a subdivision. You can enter the subject ‘genealogy’ and you’d be presented with a large group of genealogy-related resources. To limit your search, you might enter ‘genealogy – ireland’ and you’d be presented with resources about Ireland Genealogy and Irish Genealogy.

Other online catalogs allow you to conduct searches using additional search fields, often as part of an advanced search facility. These might include:

  • Combination Author/Title search – Your search could be narrowed to a search of the books written by author Brent Holcomb and with the words ‘north carolina’ in the title.
  • Magazine or Newspaper Title search – This search option allows you to determine whether a specific magazine, such as Heritage Quest, or newspaper, such as The Denver Post, is held in the collection, what issues exist, and in what format they are held.
  • ISBN/ISSN search – In the event you know the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) or the International Standard Serial Number (ISSN; a numerical code assigned to a serial (periodical), the catalog may allow you to narrow your search to a specific book or periodical.
  • Call Number search – Searching a catalog by call number can quickly tell you whether the item you want is within the collection and, whether it is a circulating or non-circulating item and, if circulating, whether it is checked-in.

The search fields and content are referred to as metadata. Certainly, other search options will be available from different libraries, and the search options provided by archives will be determined by their collections

Remember that there are some special collections that may not be cataloged, or they may be cataloged using a single catalog entry at the collection level. The collection may be so large, so diverse in content, or eclectic in nature that cataloging it would be prohibitively expensive. An excellent example of this might be the so-called vertical files in a library. These may contain folders of newspaper clippings; folders about local history; individual or group surname pedigree charts, family group sheets, and correspondence; cemetery canvasses; original handwritten or typed family history documents; or any of a disparate group of other materials.