Introduction: Get Any Information You Could Possibly Need

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Google and Wikipedia are useful starting points for an information search, but they only go so far. There are vast resources available for those who want to spend a little time and effort to get reliable, authoritative material on any subject. The key to this storehouse is your public library card.
 
Tools and Materials
To perform most of the actions in this Instructable, you only need:
-A library card
-The ability to ask questions
 
For some of the more advanced steps, you may need a little bit of money to cover printing and photocopy costs, and possibly Interlibrary Loan fees, but we’ll get to that later.
 
Be aware that this Instructable is biased toward the way libraries operate in the U.S. Depending on where in the world you live, your access may be easier or more difficult.

Step 1: Find Your Library and Get a Card

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In most U.S. municipalities, you can find a library using the telephone book, but phone books are not as accurate as they once were. One of the most useful online tools is WorldCat, which has a library finder on its website. Notice that you will get results for lots of different kinds of libraries, including those in schools, colleges and universities, and even private businesses. You want a public library, so you might want to narrow down using the links on the right.
 
Once you’ve found your library, you’ll need to get a card. At most public libraries, you are entitled to a free card simply by virtue of living in their service area. In some cases, there are other ways you can qualify, such as working, attending school, or owning property there.

Step 2: Look for Books

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When people think of libraries, they think of books first.  A book is an incredibly useful information delivery device.  It’s portable, durable, and simple to use.  More importantly, books in the library have gone through several layers of vetting to determine that the information in them is useful.  This starts with the publishing process, and includes selection by trained librarians. 

Finding books in the library requires an understanding of the system used to organize the books.  This is (in most public libraries) the Dewey Decimal Classification System, or DDC. A book of information, a.k.a. "nonfiction", has a number on the spine that corresponds to its primary coverage area and also determines its location on the shelf.  The trick is that most topics have at least a certain amount of crossover.  For instance, if you were looking for books on gardening, most of the books will be in 635, but some might be in 690 (green building), 710 (landscape architecture), or even 290 (meditation).  This is where your most useful tool comes in.

Ask a librarian.

Instructables readers are DIY folks.  We want to find it on our own.  We want to dig it up, dust it off, and make it fit.  That’s great.  Start looking on your own with the library’s catalog if you want, (It’s on their website now.  Don’t look for drawers full of index cards) and see what you can find, but make sure you make the reference or information desk a stop on your search.  You are a great searcher, but librarians are better.  They do it all day, every day.  They have advanced degrees and years of experience, and I guarantee they can find more and better information, and find it faster, than you can.

By the way, most of the books in the library can be checked out and taken home, but some can’t.  These are “reference” books.  But even if you can’t take them home, most libraries have copy machines, so you can copy the pages you need and take them with you.  This costs a little money, but it’s sure cheaper than buying the whole book!

Step 3: Other Forms of Information

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Books, as I mentioned, are great.  But for some kinds of information, they just aren’t enough.  If you’re looking for current medical, scientific, or technical research then you want articles from a journal (like a magazine, but with articles very carefully selected for quality and accuracy).  If you want to see how something is done, you may want a DVD so you can watch it happen in real time. If you want music, you need a CD.  If you want to learn about software, you need a CD-ROM with example code or tutorials.  The great news is, the library will have much of this on hand.

The exception is those journals.  Journals are expensive to purchase.  They take up a lot of space, and without a good indexing system, it’s difficult to find what you need in them.  That’s why libraries subscribe to electronic databases.  These collect and index articles from thousands of journals and other periodicals (magazines and newspapers) and organize them in a way that makes searching easy.  In many cases, you can read the article right away, in full text on your screen.  You can even print it out (Remember I told you it might cost a bit?) or e-mail it to yourself to read later. 

Even small libraries often have access to these databases, because they are purchased by statewide library organizations or consortia that pool their resources to buy a license.  But even if they don’t, there’s another way…

Step 4: Interlibrary Loan

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This may be the best-kept secret in libraries.  Your local public library, amazing as it is, remains only a small part of a vast interconnected system of libraries covering the U.S. and other countries.  Remember WorldCat from step 1?  In addition to giving you a way to find libraries, WorldCat is a giant library catalog that gives you information about where materials are located anywhere.  If you can find it in WorldCat (free to search) there’s an excellent chance that your library can get it.  It may take a little time, and it may cost a little money -- that all depends on your library -- but you can get entire books brought from across the country.  You can get photocopied journal articles or book chapters.  You can even get media like DVDs and CDs.  This is all part of the service your library provides to you.

All you have to do is ask.

Comments

JoanneHuber (author)2013-08-28

Any suggestions from anyone about family history and birth certificates and death certificates for free anywhere??? (They don't have to be authentic and stamped) I just want to print them and have the information. I'm going crazy!!!! Every site costs money. I have papers from 2006 that say "worlds largest free.... Bla bla bla" now it all costs money. :(. Any help would be awesome!!!!

yoyology (author)JoanneHuber2013-09-10

Most libraries work closely with genealogists and can help you get started. Also, look for genealogical societies in your area.

Official copies of birth and death certificates are still going to cost you money, but libraries can help you find the actual vital records office rather than going through a broker, which it sounds like you're finding.

NachoMahma (author)2010-07-16

. Very nice. The WorldCat link alone is well worth the price of admission.
.  gasp! No mention of LoC?!?  :)

yoyology (author)NachoMahma2010-07-16

Well, not until you did. :-) Maybe I should add a new step that addresses government documents, depository libraries, and the LoC.

Shippygirl (author)2010-07-06

Besides cookbooks, movies, and magazines, I use the databases the most. Many of the articles I find through googling want you to pay for the article. I look to see if the article is carried in the databases and print it out for free.

yoyology (author)Shippygirl2010-07-08

That's what we like to hear! :-)

siege10 (author)2010-06-22

lol i walk by that "library" every day its in Seattle... well Ballard but nobody knows where Ballard really is so... but yeah i got a crate full of electronics books from some guy on craigslist all from the navy... military books rock.

thematthatter (author)2010-04-29

If your in the Military you also have access to a crap load of information including repair manuals for most vehicles, free books on tape (mp3), magazine articles (including Army times and military times)-all on line through AKO

its under "my libraries" tab under self service.

yoyology (author)thematthatter2010-05-04

Oh, heck yeah!  The US military has a great library service.

Thanks for contributing, Matt.

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