WorldCat: a librarians’ tool the public can use

Libraries of any size probably rely on the various services of a company called OCLC. No one else needs to know anything about most of them, but you may have seen a reference librarian look up something for you on WorldCat. That’s a tool you can use as easily as you use your own  library’s catalog. It’s free and available from your home as well as the library.

WorldCat aspires to be a universal library catalog. It hasn’t made it yet, but it shows the holdings of about 27,000 different libraries in more than 170 different countries. Even though it does not contain the holdings of every library in the world, it easily lives up to its slogan “the world’s largest library catalog.”

You might be familiar with something similar on a smaller scale. Many people have access to more than one library. Their city’s library may have several branches. Or it might be part of a library system that includes other libraries–public, academic, and corporate. These library systems often have reciprocal borrowing agreements, so everyone who has a library card at any one library can use it to borrow things from the others. At any one library, you can look either at that library’s catalog exclusively or at the online catalogs of all the libraries in the system. Except for the reciprocal borrowing privileges, WorldCat is like that system-wide online library catalog with worldwide coverage.

Let’s say you want a particular item, look it up in your library’s online catalog (either at the library or at home), and find that they do not have it. You can go to WorldCat to see what other libraries have it. WorldCat has a place to sign in, but unless you want to be a power user, just ignore it. You will also see the familiar search box, like you would see on Google or another search engine, along with tabs to limit your search to books, CDs, DVDs, or articles, which you won’t find on Google.

A single search box does not work as well for an online library catalog as it does for a search engine, but it’s a place to start. If you know the ISBN (International Standard Book Number), you can use it as your search term. It will take you right to the record for what you want. Otherwise, the best way to start is to enter the last name and a distinctive word or two from the title. That may take you right to what you’re looking for. At worst, you will get a list of results that are much smaller than what Google returns. And so you can probably recognize what you want right away.

Once you find the record you’re looking for, you can click on the hot links for author, title, series, subject, etc. if you want additional related items. You will also see a box with a ZIP code in it. Enter your own ZIP code if that’s not the one already in the box. That way, you get a list of the libraries that have the item. The closest library will be on top, and the rest follow in order of increasing distance. The name of each library is a hot link that will take you to its online catalog.

That catalog, in turn, will tell you whether there are any copies available. Perhaps someone else already has it checked out. Or perhaps the item does not circulate and you must drive to the library to look at it or request copies of selected pages through interlibrary loan.

See how easy it is to use the same tool librarians use to help you? And you didn’t have to leave the same computer that told you your library didn’t have what you needed. You can get directions to the other library or fill out an interlibrary loan request through your library’s web site while you’re still there.

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