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Academic Libraries: Overview for New and Returning Students: Navigating an Academic Library

This guide is intended for primarily for adult students, who are just starting or returning to college after many years.

Academic Libraries: Typical Information Sources

Searching the Online Catalog vs. the old Card Catalog

Most of the results in any single OPAC search will be print books, since currently the print collection still outnumbers the online collection.

However, the OPAC will also identify all other materials in the collection, including E-Books, audio / visual materials, journal titles, and microfilm / microfiche.

Books: Print vs. Online Collections

The OPAC will identify all printed books held within the library. Each book has been assigned a Library of Congress call number, which pinpoints the location of where the book is shelved. Books on similar topics will be shelved nearby, and will have similar call numbers.

To find this sample call number, GC231.2 .H65 2011, look first for the G's, then the GC's, then the GC 200's, and GC 230's, then GC 231.2, etc., etc., etc... For more on call numbers see Library of Congress Classification System.

The OPAC will also identify the library's online books. A keyword search in the OPAC will typically bring a mixture of print and online titles. Most libraries have one or more online book collections (eBooks), which may be searched individually. Unlike the OPAC, these E-Book collections will allow for a search within the entire text of these online books. An example is the Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Journals, magazines, & newspapers are published 'periodically,' hence the term 'Periodical Databases.'

A 'Keyword' search in a periodical database will search anywhere within the:

  • article title
  • journal title
  • subject headings
  • abstract (summary of the article)
  • author's name (author of an article)

Most periodical databases have a mixture of full text articles and some items where there is only an abstract (summary) of the article.

Find any article on a given topic; or find a specific article.


For more on finding articles in the Sawyer Library's periodical databases, see the guides:


Typical Questions:

For more information on the research process, see the Library Introduction & Instruction tutorial.

The terms Refereed, Peer Reviewed, Academic, and Scholarly are often used interchangeably.

To be published in a peer reviewed (or refereed) journal, the article must be read and approved by other scholars in that field of study. For more on how to distinguish a scholarly journal from a popular magazine, see the Sawyer Library guide: Peer Review and Primary Literature: An Introduction.

Aren't Wikipedia and Google just as good as the periodical databases?

.edu; .gov; .org; .com

Domain names are part of a website's address, or URL. They can be helpful in determining what type of organization stands behind a given website.

Academic Honesty and Avoiding Plagiarism:

For more information on these concepts, see the guide Ethical Use of Information.

An Online Book, found in the Catalog.

More about using the Catalog (OPAC)