A Tour of the (Virtual) Library

The following is a guest post from Associate Editor & Copy Manager Erika Spelman about the impact of digital technology on research libraries.

As a student in a master’s degree program, I am learning a lot about the library—especially that it is a much different place nowadays than it used to be. A professor in a class I recently completed took us to the Pratt Institute library for a tour. We all, including the professor, thought we were going to be shown around the stacks—for example, where the books and journals relevant to our subject were located. Instead, the librarian sat us down in a conference room, projected her computer’s browser on a screen, and proceeded to show us how to use various databases.

The librarian discussed which databases contained the information that was likely to be most useful to us and which were the most (and least) user friendly. We learned search techniques, including using a “thesaurus”—no, not a list of synonyms and antonyms for the purpose of aiding a writer but a database’s guide to preferred terms. For example, when looking for sources on “Business expenses” in the database Library Literature & Information Science Full Text, a quick search in the thesaurus advises using the phrase “Operating costs” instead. Therefore, checking the thesaurus before beginning a search saves valuable time that would be wasted by trying the wrong search terms.

New York City Public Library front

CC Image courtesy of melanzane1013 on Flickr

Many databases are available from the New York Public Library’s Online Public Access Catalog, or OPAC, under the “Research” tab from the library’s home page. Some can be accessed from home as long as you have a library card, but for others you need to be in certain branches of the library. Two that are accessible from home are Readers’ Guide Abstracts and Readers’ Guide Retrospective (1890-1982). When I was in high school, we used The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature to find periodical sources by going to the library and taking the big green volumes, one for each year with articles indexed by subject, from the shelves. Now, though older print volumes can still be found in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (otherwise known as the building with the lions in front), the online versions offer advanced searching capabilities. You can narrow your results by date range, preferred type of resource (e.g., scholarly journal or newspaper), and other factors (e.g., article or book review). Some results link to the full text, so you do not even have to go searching for them elsewhere. Others come up with an “abstract”—a handy summary that lets you know whether the article is relevant to your research.

One of my professors told a story about a study that was done where students were sat in front of computers and told to research a topic. When they were able to find the full text of an article online, they used the information from the article. When they found only the title or an abstract and were informed that the article was in a hard copy of the journal on nearby shelves, they typically stayed in front of the computer and went looking for another article rather than getting up and going across the room. I have to admit that, although I did make many trips to the library in researching my most recent paper, I ended up not using a promising-looking source that would have required a trip down to the Pratt Manhattan Campus library to dig up the hard copy. At least, though, thanks to the OPAC’s capabilities, I know it is there.

Erika Spelman is an associate editor and copy manager at AMACOM. She shepherds books through the production process, helps set house style, and serves as a resource regarding style, word usage, and grammar for the company. Prior to joining AMACOM, Erika worked as a principal manuscript editor at West Group and as a proofreader at Counsel Press.

Earlier Posts:
Erika on the Top Ten Copyediting Mistakes
Erika on Eight Things That Are Not Actually Copyediting Mistakes
Erika on an Associate Editor’s Role in Interior Book Design
Erika on the Noble Art of Proofreading
Author Tips: What to Submit with Your Final Manuscript


One response to “A Tour of the (Virtual) Library

  1. Pingback: Discovering the Library and the World | AMACOM Books Blog

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