Getting The Most Out Of Your Library

Getting The Most Out Of Your Library

Got something to say?

Share your comments on this topic with other web professionals

In: Articles

By William Hicks

Published on August 12, 2008

So I want to talk about libraries. No, not the JavaScript kind, the old ones—bricks, mortar, and books.

Chances are that when you need design inspiration, help with some code, or almost anything related to the business of web design you hit Google, Flickr, and in quick succession a dozen or more sites that you’ve found consistent and relevant to your needs over the years. You’ll probably harass your friends over the favored social network of the hour, and usually the results from all of the above will be immediate and relatively decent. However, if you find yourself on page six of a result set, spending much of your hard earned cash on tech books, needing more art inspiration, or if you’re just looking for one of those “old” things that will probably never make it onto the web, I’d like to offer some suggestions.

I’ll discuss ways to navigate some of the clutter of older card catalogs (now ‘updated’ to the web); services like interlibrary loan that get you stuff from almost anywhere; some of the specialized database-driven applications you can’t affordably access from the outside world; and a host of other tools and issues you have probably never considered. In the end, you will come out a more agile designer and developer.

Libraries: Why should you care?

Think of the library system as something akin to the open-source movement before software. Subsidized institutions buy books, subscribe to journals and proprietary databases, and pay people to help you find “stuff”, all essentially at no cost to you.

Most libraries fall into one of three categories: public, academic, or specialized. You probably checked out all your early readers from the first when you were a kid, may never have set foot in the second (even if you went to college), and—unless you are dealing with the law or medicine—you don’t need to know much about the third.

Many libraries communicate and share amongst themselves, and are supported by tax dollars, student-use fees, or the endowments or profits of their host institution. And, even though you may not attend, the goldmine is usually at the academic institutions so I’ll spend a lot of time talking about how you can harvest things from those.

So what might they have that you may find interesting?

  1. You would like to use an obscure piece of art, manuscript, plate, or other cool/retro image in the header of a client’s blog. Noodling around on the web finds a few candidates, one of which you love, but the best image available seems to be a thumbnail gif. Since on the web you tend not to easily find high-quality versions of art you settle for something that fits your size requirements but is common and plastered on a few dozen other sites. By contrast, many large academic libraries have row after row of art books and journals with print reproductions of artists both great and obscure. Many have scanners right next to their photocopiers.
  2. Your workplace upgraded Program X, again, or you need to dabble in programming language Y for a while. You want to know what’s new/important without having to buy yet another phonebook sized tome. Sure, you can find a lot of this kind of documentation online, but be aware that some institutions will buy these for their patrons, and others may offer them online as ebooks as well.
  3. You are putting together a short Flash video or other rich media for a client and need access to some footage without worrying too much about royalties and copyright. As an example, Justin Chone’s Building on the Past was created from this type of material. He employed content from the Prelinger Archive, and while searching creative commons licensed materials will get you pretty far, you might want to consider looking up the digital collections, archival holdings, and government documents owned by many academic libraries.
  4. You’re a typography, logo, or trademark nut and want to compare a few hundred identities in fairly quick order. You might be able to hash out a groovy mashup to do this, or you could just check out the library catalog which may have what you are looking for wrapped up in a single volume. As an added bonus, because of the way materials tend to be shelved in libraries, you may stumble upon other books on package design, or brand identity that are of related value to you.

So really, then, it seems to be a question of economics. Figure out how much you spend in a given year on buying books, and the time you invest in searching for things to use in your designs. If you feel like it’s too much, here are some ideas to help.

Getting where you need to be

Granted, you might not be currently attending a university, but if you live in almost any major metropolitan area you are probably only a short commute to one or more. Most academic libraries have open stacks, allow guests who are on-campus access to their subscription databases, and many extend loan (check out) privileges to “community” members through their circulation units. Policies vary, but just ask and their collections may be yours for the picking. I suggest you browse the university’s website and figure out what their educational strengths are—you’ll get a feel for what kinds of things their library buys and subscribes to. If the university has a good computer science program, chances are their library will be stocked with programming books. If the university has an art school or a journalism program then there is probably a decent budget for art and print media, journals, etc. As might be expected, bigger schools also typically translate into bigger purchasing budgets.

If this doesn’t work for you, then you’ve most likely got access to a branch of your municipality’s local public library within a few miles of your home. Through it, you will often have access to the general holdings of hundreds of academic and other large public library systems. This is made possible through a service called Interlibrary Loan (ILL), or document delivery, depending on your locale. ILL basically operates in such a way that if an item can be located in a library somewhere (usually limited to your own country), and verified as circulating, the service will request the item be shipped from the holding institution to yours, or that photocopies be made and sent to you in their stead. In many cases this will be at no cost to you. You’ll make a request by either filling out an online or paper form so you’ll need to know some of the basic metadata associated with the item for faster processing. What are the best ways to go about knowing that?

Aside from Amazon, you might want to check out OCLC’s Worldcat services. You can use this in a couple of ways:

  • Serendipity might help you out—Google, Yahoo, and a few other services search OCLC’s openworldcat which will find you roughly 3.5 million commonly held items.
  • If that doesn’t work, try OCLC’s primary search engine at and search roughly 1 billion records. The search engine is pleasant because it gives you facets for refining your results and is blessedly devoid of advertising. Once you think you’ve hit on an item you want, check to make sure the item display page sniffed your postal code and you’ll see ordered results of libraries holding the item and their proximity to you.

You should note, however, that Worldcat doesn’t search every library and doesn’t know everything each institution holds; still, it is well worth the effort. If this finds you what you want, great, go get it or contact your local library and make an ILL request.

If you’ve settled on a library to call home, you’ll also want to check out the LibX Firefox toolbar provided by the nice folks at Virginia Tech. There are hundreds of editions for different libraries, and if your local institution hasn’t configured one, harass a librarian to do so, because it’s spot-on easy for them to do. LibX is particularly helpful because it auto-detects ISBN’s on web pages and can place “cues” on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, and other pages. In most cases you will be much more comfortable surfing Amazon than a library catalog anyway so I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you happen upon an item of interest, then you can fire off a targeted search by clicking your institution’s cue. If it turns out your library doesn’t have a copy of the item, make an ILL request and again, save a few bucks.

It’s also worth checking out Mycroft which lists close to 500 search engine plugins under Education/Libraries, or grabbing the OpenSearchFox plugin and building your own when the need arises. Finally, I should also mention that if you really need another social network then you should check out librarything, where you can access reviews of books and discussions with people from all sorts of disciplines, all of which can help you make a better informed decision in your daily work.

It’s important to note, however, that in the above cases we are looking at getting access to things that the library has in their online library catalog. Unfortunately, not everything libraries hold are cataloged and so it’s important that we look at some typical models of organization you’ll have to navigate through.

Information Architecture: Catalogs, Collections and the Web

Before the web and easily accessible databases, libraries used to organize their materials into complex card-based sorting systems, paper-based info sheets, and subject guides. If you’re older than about twenty-five you were forced to use these—and it probably put you off libraries for life. While almost all libraries now have websites and online searchable catalogs, a lot of those existing structures still exist, now migrated to the web, but often not indexed by search engine spiders. So what do you need to know to navigate this minefield?

  • You will not be happy with many library websites. Libraries are big and beastly, offering lots of services to lots of audiences. Information architecture is rarely pretty, markup is typically much worse. You will get lost. Sorry.
  • If you’re looking for almost any tangible media—books, documents, journals—look for the catalog. Sometimes it’s got some kind of branded name, but you’ll know it when you see options for searching by Title, Keyword, Subject, Call Number, Other Number, etc.
  • If you’re looking for images or documents associated with a particular locale or region’s cultural heritage/history, or in some cases government documents, you may want to sniff around for universities whose libraries hold digital collections. Sometimes these are cataloged, but sometimes they have in-house database-driven applications that are autonomous. How these are organized, and how they are licensed varies, but most of it is on the web so you’ll get quick access from almost anywhere.
  • Many institutions will have archives or rare book rooms. Sometimes their holdings will be properly digitized, but much of their contents will not. You may, however, find interesting images owned by these and variously described on the libraries website as a collection, finding aid, or exhibit. This stuff won’t circulate, but if you’ve just got to get a classic cartoon from a 19th century copy of Punch magazine, you might be able to talk a librarian into letting you wear little white gloves while you browse through its pages with a digital camera discreetly hidden in your pocket.
  • Finally, many academic libraries subscribe to hundreds of proprietary databases (and list authoritative free ones too) that provide abstracts or full text of countless books, journals (magazines), and other publications. You won’t have access to these unless you’re on a campus, but they can be worth the trouble if you have a fair idea of what you are looking for. A good example of this is the Safari tech book series which lists thousands of technology books from publishers like O’Reilly, Peachpit, Microsoft, Adobe, and No Starch.

Catalogs and Stacks

So you found the library catalog, fired off a search and found an item that sounds mildly intriguing. The result page probably didn’t have any real reviews of the book, it is doubtful there was a book cover, nor apparently any other related items. You’re most likely staring at a title, some notes on the author, a bunch of useless publication data, some subject headings, notes, and a string of letters and numbers. it is not. It’s not built for you the user. It’s built for the vendors, librarians, and their staff. For now, you are stuck with it. (Again, sorry.) Help or urge the local librarian to adopt newer ideas into their catalogs. Here are a few tips on dealing with library catalogs as they exist in many institutions that will hopefully help a bit.

In most academic library settings you will eventually confront an alphanumeric subject-based classification system known as the Library of Congress (LC) system. Most Public libraries use a similar system called Dewey classification, or if you are looking for public domain documents from a government collection housed at an academic library you might have to deal with a Superintendent of Documents (SuDoc) number. All of this is really abstract and confusing, but simply put the number classifies the item in relation to other similar items and allows for placement on the shelves. For example, you might be presented with: QA76.73 P98 L88 2006. This number (from left to right) tells us that the item is classified under Sciences: Mathematics: Programming Languages: Python, that it is by Mark Lutz, and that it was published in 2006. If you are interested in learning how to decode this kind of stuff, then check out the Library of Congress Classification Outline. For designers and developers I would guess that a lot of the stuff you need will be found in the following ranges: QA and TK (computer-related code) and anything starting with N for art-related materials, except some photography (TR). If you need to figure out how to decipher a SuDocs number, then see the explanation at Good luck.

You’ll also run into the problem of searching via keywords and subjects. This one trips up a lot of people, but it can be very powerful in helping you discover information. Most online catalogs will let you view related items via subjects. In this way you can see that “Typography” is related to “Printing” and has Children for “Advertising”, “Newspaper”, “Web”, and perhaps others. (I’d suggest a quick review of the recent Digital Web article Better Living Through Taxonomies for more on how taxonomies work.) In the library world, subject headings are assigned by cataloging experts and with a few exceptions there isn’t a lot of user classification via tags going on yet. The Library of Congress maintains a searchable database of subject headings you might want to look at, and every record returned in an online catalog will have links to lists of similar items classified with the same subject.

Finally, library catalogs don’t really do ‘full text’ indexing of the items they reference, so keywords are found in the titles and descriptions only.

Other Random Library Things worth noting

Before concluding, I’ll mention a couple of other things that make academic libraries beneficial to web designers and developers.

The first involves your daily work environment. If you are a developer who hangs out at a coffee shop then you might be surprised to know that in an attempt to draw more students in, many academic libraries have built small coffee shops into their floor plans, and that many larger institutions will offer free Wi-Fi throughout the buildings. Further, you’ll find that their floor-plans often offer both low and high traffic/noise areas in which to work, and either might work for you, depending on your tastes.

Finally, depending on your predilection to be sociable in the real world, you’ll find that in an academic library that you are surrounded by a large cross-section of society. On most days you will find a mix of 18-24 year olds, but you will also find a number of older users as well, many from the surrounding community, some with very high levels of education, and others with less. While you can’t really get a full blown usability study out of this group—nor would any institution sanction such a thing—you might be able to strike up conversations with people, show them some of your work, learn what they think about your designs, find out how they use the web, and discover other things to help you in your development practices.


I hope I have demonstrated that libraries may be worth returning to if they don’t currently receive any of your attention. Many large institutions have nothing but their patron’s, and often society’s, best interests at heart. While you may not get instant gratification from a library, and few if any are really cutting-edge when it comes to their use of web technologies, there is something to be said for the diversity and quality of information they provide you in your daily development tasks.

Got something to say?

Share your comments  with other professionals (9 comments)

Related Topics: User-Centered Design (UCD), User Experience, Technology, Knowledge Management, Interaction Design, Information Design, Information Architecture, Education, Content

William Hicks is a web designer/librarian at the University of North Texas. He wears the HTML/CSS/Javascript/Python hat for his department, and digs information architecture, accessibility, and usability. He’d rather stack blocks with his daughter right now than write blog posts.