Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Research Tip: Search Libraries & Archives Worldwide in One Search

Did you know that about 10,000 libraries have banded together and produced one big catalog--and that it's available online and you can search it for free? It's called WorldCat, and it's a pretty good bet that your local public and college libraries are members. So what does that mean for you as a writer or reader?

If you go to WorldCat and do a search on a topic, it won't just give you a list of results. You can give it your location via zip code and it will produce a list of nearby libraries that have the item that interests you. It will even tell you how many miles away the library is--and link you to that library's web page and "Ask a Librarian" feature. So in a couple of clicks, you could locate some helpful material and communicate with your local librarian about it if you have questions. And of course, if it's not available near you, you can also click a button to be taken to an online bookseller that has the item.

One of my favorite things about WorldCat is that it will also tell you about relevant items that are cataloged in the library's archives. In fact, if you just want to look at archival materials, you can look at the limiters over on the left side and click on "Archival Materials." Try doing a search like "slavery oral histories" or "civil war journals," for example, and you'll find published books and one-of-a-kind documents that exist only in the Archives.

Don't forget that, if the book you want isn't in a library near you, you can take the info to your local library and ask them to get it for you through Interlibrary Loan. Most Archival materials won't be sent out that way. But some archives have their cataloged materials digitized, and others might occasionally send you a small amount of photocopied material. I have seen some that would send a microfilmed reel of historic newspapers, for example, to your local library. You would just have to use it in the library, not take it home with you. (But then, not many of us have microfilm machines at home, anyway!)

You could also use WorldCat to try to find other books similar to your Work in Progress. I mentioned some ways to do this in an earlier post, but you can also try WorldCat. I tried my "christian fiction time travel" search and it produced great results.

Here's one of my favorite anecdoctes about WorldCat. For almost a hundred years, a four-volume set of engravings by a renowned 17th century British engraver was "missing." It had actually been purchased by someone and given to the University of Southern California, but researchers studying this engraver had no idea where the volumes ended up. One day, a cataloger working on a project about the engraver decided to check WorldCat. And there the volumes were, very clearly cataloged at USC. But until WorldCat came along, their location was a forgotten factoid. A complete mystery.