Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Brussels Sprouts, WorldCat, and Inter-Library Loan

Remember having to go to the library to dig through rows of card catalogs to see if they had a book you wanted, or a section on a particular subject (979 was one of my favorites: General History of North America; Great Basin & Pacific Slope)? Those days are pretty much gone now. Most libraries in the U.S. and Canada have digitized their card catalogs, and has made it a whole lot easier to search electronically for niche subjects.

I happen to live in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest. Our local library is pretty small; it just doesn’t have the books in the stacks that will help me research my projects. The nearest truly serious library is a three-hour drive to the state university. That’s inconvenient. And any way, the whole point of this blog is to find stuff using your computer.

A Great Place to Start Looking is the WorldCat

This site is, as they say on their “About” page, “the world's largest network of library content and services. WorldCat libraries are dedicated to providing access to their resources on the Web, where most people start their search for information.” And they deliver. The screen shot shows a search for "mining swindles."

When you open up the home page there’ll be a search box on the left with a few choices: Everything, Books, DVDs, CDs, and Articles. Let’s search for the subject I’ve mentioned in the two past posts: Mr Asbury. I enter the name, then click on Everything.

Tip: WorldCat results generally do not provide descriptions of what’s in the book. For more information you can try a search on Amazon Books or a title search on a browser. If it's an older book, you can also check the Internet Archive to see if they offer a download.

The first two items to show up in Asbury’s results are his autobiography. By clicking on the first entry a page with some details pops up. Among the items is a list of which libraries near me have a physical copy (WorldCat knows my ZIP code). The entry indicates that what is available is a 1958 edition published by the University of Oklahoma Press. By clicking on one of the repositories I learn that the state historical society holds one copy. But unless I want to drive a few hours, over the Continental Divide no less, I’ll have to find another way to get the book.

The Wonderful Invention Called ILL

ILL stands for Inter-Library Loan, which most of you have already heard about and perhaps have made use of yourself. And the best thing about ILL? It’s absolutely Free.

Okay, this is one of those times when you’ll need to get up from the computer and go mobile, because most libraries will only accept an Inter-Library Loan request in person. I generally print out the detail page for the book(s) I want, then hop in the car for the ten-minute drive to the county library. There, on the second floor, is the ILL desk. I fill out a form, hand it to the librarian, stop by the grocery store on the way home for some Brussels sprouts, sauté them with some bacon, and sit and wait in the comfort of my office. 

In about two weeks—long after the sprouts are consumed— the local library will email or call me to say that my ILL book is in. I need to go back in to pick up the volume. Typically I can check it out for at least two weeks or a month (and sometimes, they’ll let me request an extension).

Let’s Look at Some of the Other Results

Number 6 in our WorldCat Asbury search is an article from The Register of the State Historical Society entitled “Privateers in California,” and listing the volume and page numbers. Several of the subjects I’m researching were from that state, so there might be something here for me. How to get a copy of it?

ILL might be able to help me, but the chances they could borrow the item are pretty slim. Why not contact the historical society directly? I scanned their website to see if the article had been digitized. It had not. Next step? Because I know the details of where the item is I can ask the society to make me a copy. All that was necessary was to print out a request form, fill in the data, and mail it to the society along with a check ($5.00 plus $.30 each for twelve pages). 

(n.b.: I found this item only while writing this post—I had no idea it existed until just now. Ya gotta love the web.)

Item 11 looks really interesting: a letter to a mining partner. Looking at the detail WorldCat provids revealed that the missive was part of my guy’s personal papers, held at the University of California and the California Historical Society. That’s going to be well worth pursuing, but I’ll wait until later to do a more comprehensive search (and if I’m really, really lucky, there will be a folder-level inventory of the collection on the web).

By Clicking on "Everything" WorldCat Gives You More Than Just Books

Sometimes you’ll find material available on microform (either microfilm reels or microfiche sheets), and these often circulate through ILL (as do CDs and DVDs). As noted above, you can usually get photocopies of articles, for free or a small fee, from the repository or journal that holds them.

Tip: Most public and college libraries have public-use microform reader/printers.

Any comments or questions? Please drop me a line.

Next time we’ll explore using Amazon.com as a research source—really.

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