Step 1: Find Your Library and Get a Card
Step 2: Look for Books
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
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
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.