In a Library Near You? Check WorldCat

Suppose you want to read a particular book, but you don’t want to buy your own copy. Or perhaps the book is out of print, and you can’t find a copy to buy. Obviously, look for it at the library. You can look at your local library’s catalog online, but it will not necessarily have what you are looking for, limited budgets and all. Without trying to identify and search other nearby libraries, how can you locate your title? A company that almost all libraries use one way or another offers a service to the public called WorldCat.

In a way, searching WorldCat is pretty much like searching any other library catalog, except that you are actually searching the holdings of almost 27,000 libraries all over the world. You can see exactly which ones have what you are looking for, including which ones are close by. I said book in the first paragraph, but of course libraries these days have much more than just books.

When you first log on to WorldCat, you will see a place to sign in. You do not need to create an account in order to search WorldCat, but you can if you want to use it for compiling lists or writing reviews. You will also see a single search box, much like Google has. I have written elsewhere that the single search box works well for using a search engine, but less well for using a database. And the library catalog is a database.

Nonetheless, the single search box works well enough if you use both the author’s name and a distinctive word from the title. If you know the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) or any other common numbering system, it works beautifully. WorldCat’s search box has one feature search engines lack. Since you are searching for library materials and nothing else, you can choose “everything” (the default) to search the entire database or limit it to search only for books or DVDs or CDs or articles.

Beneath the search box is a link to the advanced search. For many searches, it is actually easier to use, but since this post is about locating nearby copies and not about searching the catalog, I’ll say nothing more about it. By whichever means you choose, search until you find an entry for what you want.

You will come to a screen that has the title of the item, perhaps a picture of it, and some basic information such as the names of the author(s) and publisher and date of publication. Under that you will find a list of nearby libraries. Enter your ZIP code, and the screen will show them in order of how near they are. You may learn that one or more libraries in or within five miles of your ZIP code have what you need. You can follow the library links to see the catalogs of those libraries and find out it is on the shelf, or if someone else has borrowed it.

In the case of my sample WorldCat search, the nearest copy is 24 miles away. That’s a bit farther than I want to travel, and since it’s in another county, I don’t have borrowing privileges there anyway. One thing I can do is copy the basic information (author, title, ISBN is good enough) and see if my local library can get it for me on InterLibrary Loan. I may have to wait a week or so, but I have still used WorldCat to locate what I was looking for and borrow it from a library. It’s not just for librarians!

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