Reader Friday: How to Find Treasures in the Public Library

We normally have a short-form question and discussion on Reader Fridays, but today we have a special contribution by Dale Ivan Smith, a discussion of the pro tips and tricks to navigate the vast resources of the online library. What could be more appropriate for readers?

Thanks, Dale, for this post!


Dale Ivan Smith 


What to do if your public library is closed evenings, or Sundays, or any other time when you might need to access their resources? How do you find what you seek? 

 The 24/7 Online Library is the answer 

  • Your library card is the key to unlocking treasures online
  • You can do this 24/7
  • You can visit the online, always open library from anywhere you have internet access, not just at home
  • Be sure and pack your library card when you travel

 What You Will Find at the Public Library’s Website 

  • The web address may be on your library card
  • Once at your library’s home page, take a moment to look around
  • There will be a variety of links, perhaps a search box for the catalog and other library resources, perhaps current library events, hours etc.
  • You may find links in a drop-down menu and/or displayed directly on the home page

 What Treasure Do You Seek? 

  • Know what you are looking for
  • What aspect of this area of knowledge do you need?
  • Be as specific as you need, but also be willing to go general and then dive down
  • What areas of research does your story require?

 A Real World Example 

A patron came to me and asked for help in finding books on the U.S. Civil War. I took the patron to the section and did a short “reference interview,” asking questions. What aspect of the Civil War did they need? Military, social, political, economic, or something else? The answer was “economic.” I then asked if there were anything that they needed specifically in terms of economics of the Civil War. They said, “Currency.” After a little more back and forth, it turned out that they were looking for was a book that listed Confederate Paper Money, with current market valuations and condition grades. I love this example of a library search because it shows how starting out with a general subject / topic can put you on the wrong track, but , at the same time how to start general and then zero in on a topic by asking questions. 

 Your Guide 

  • Librarians are here to help
  • They can show you the lay of the land
  • They can teach you how to search on your own, which is especially useful when you are not inside the library building
  • You may be able to chat with a librarian online, too
  • Let them know that you are writing a book or article. Knowing that you are helps them help you
  • Plus, libraries love writers and authors.

 All-Purpose Library Search Tips 

  • Many online library resources such as the card catalog, databases, NoveList, and WorldCat, have a search box where you can type in what you are looking for. That “basic search” casts a wide net and won’t produce focused results like the “advance search” option will, which is where you can search by title, author, or subject, or even combinations of those. Typically, there is a toggle or link for advance search near the search box, or it might display once you’ve done a basic search.
  • A book’s catalog card (“records” in library speak) will display the title and author of the book in question, and then will show subject listings below, which is a very useful way of locating which topics a book might fall

 The Online Library Catalog 

  • Your first stop when looking for a book
  • Check from home to see if your library system owns a copy of the book that you seek
  • If the book is checked out, put yourself on the waiting list

 Research Tip: Evaluating Sources 

The University of Berkley has a very helpful checklist for evaluating published sources, especially books, for when you are doing research on a subject for a book or article of your own: 

 NoveList (AKA Novelist Plus) 

  • A searchable database of fiction and non-fiction books
  • Each title will display any reviews about that book, as well as read-a-likes / similar books
  • You can search by title, author, or even subject
  • Recommended reading lists by subject are listed on the starting page
  • Useful if you are looking for non-fiction books on a particular topic, or wanting a good novel to refill your own creative well
  • You can also use it to find comp titles for a pitch or a query letter to an agent or an editor, or to use in a book description if you self-published
  • NoveList is available online at many public library websites

 In case you need more information check out this article at Reedsy’s blog: 

  WorldCat and Interlibrary Loans 

  • WorldCat is a global library catalog
  • Your own library very likely has a link to it on their website. You may have to search for “WorldCat” or “Interlibrary Loan”.
  • It allows you to request books and articles from other library systems, both other public libraries and college and universities
  • Interlibrary loan is the library term for borrowing books and requesting articles from other libraries.
  • Typically, a book request will take a few weeks
  • You will need to create an ILL account so that you can request items. Check with a local librarian if you have any questions.


  • Overdrive is a major provider of eBooks and audio books to libraries around the world
  • You can borrow and read eBooks on your smart phone, tablet, Kindle, even your computer
  • Overdrive books will likely be listed in your library’s online catalog, and there will be link that takes you to the separate Overdrive catalog
  • Libby is now a widely available app for smart phones and tablets, which Overdrive created for patrons as a “one-stop” search and borrow experience.  Search for an eBook or audio book, borrow the book in the app, and then read or listen to that book in the app. 
  • Note: eBooks borrowed for Kindle work differently. Check with your local librarian for details
  • If you need help with this service, I recommend scheduling a visit to the library to have a staff member walk you through the process of searching and borrowing eBooks

Online Databases 

A host of electronic databases are available for libraries to subscribe to, and thus give librarians and patrons alike access. Budgets will determine which ones a library might be able to provide access to. Gale Databases are one of the most widely available, covering a host of topics from Academic articles to Health, Law, History, Science etc. You’ll need your library card to access them. 


I hope these tips come in handy. What library tips do you have to share? 

This entry was posted in online research, Writing by Steve Hooley. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

30 thoughts on “Reader Friday: How to Find Treasures in the Public Library

  1. Good morning, Steve, and a good morning and welcome to you, Ivan. Thanks for pulling the veil back.

    Many people think an internet search is a be-all and end-all for research. Nope. Folks like Ivan will be there to help when it all goes south. Thank you for being there, Ivan.

    Have a terrific weekend!

  2. Dale, I’m sorry I kept calling you “Ivan.” I have no excuse, other than not being properly caffeinated.

    • Good morning, Joe.

      Thanks for your comments. I will be careful what I say, since I have not yet had my coffee, but then I may attempt a joke.

      Have a good cup of joe!

    • No worries, Joe. Besides, my first name very nearly was Ivan. My father’s name was Ivan, and my mother wanted to name me in his honor as his first-born son, but my father didn’t want any son of his going through life as “junior” so Ivan became my middle name 🙂

      Glad to provide a framework and a few tips! Have a wonderful weekend!

  3. Welcome, Dale.
    Living in a rural area with a very small library system (2 branches) and small collections in each, the online catalog (ours use Marmot) is a godsend. I don’t use it for research as much as getting copies of new releases by favorite authors, or books for my book club that I’d never buy. In all the years I’ve been getting books this way, I’d say only once did the copy, when it arrived, come from our little system. I get them from all over Colorado.

    • Thanks, Terry. I’m glad you utilize interlibrary loan. Especially important for rural libraries. I gave a online presentation on navigating the public library last month for the Oregon Coast Chapter of Willamette Writers. Many of that chapter’s members belong to very small libraries. I had a lot of wonderful questions 🙂

  4. Thanks, Dale. I need to come back & read this post again after work so I can take some notes–a lot of info.

    I definitely under-utilize the library. I cringed when I read the example about a patron approaching for resources on the Civil War because your first thought is “well that could be one of 50,000 books.” LOL!!!!!!

    The most interesting resource you brought up is NoveList. I’m curious–you mention that it can be used for finding market comps. How/what data does it capture to identify market comps? Like a broad general list of categories? The reason I ask is that my #1 problem as a reader is finding books to read. Certainly not for lack of novels on the market, but because it’s hard to zero in and find the ones that really grab me. I’ve never found a good solid resource to make that book hunting process for the reader easier.

    And I LOVE Overdrive. That is how I obtain/read most of my library reads. The only time this isn’t helpful is when doing historical research. With a few exceptions, most of the books I consult for historical reference have been published for some time, and are less likely to be picked up for conversion to e-book format, so not on Overdrive.

    Thanks for this post!

    • Thanks, BK! Glad you found this useful. NoveList does provide various subject categories for individual books, which are very handy. I’m glad you utilize Overdrive, a terrific resource. I wish more reference books were there.

      Check out Gale’s various online reference databases. Your local library probably subscribes to several, such as Academic One File or their Literature Resource Center.

  5. Thanks, Dale, for posting this blog today. Wonderful discussion! I’m printing this one, and eager to try some of these resources.

    I have no tips to share. The most advanced search I’ve done at our library is using the state’s library system to find a book our local library doesn’t have. Now, you have broadened my horizons. Thanks!

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • You’re very welcome, Steve. Thanks for letting me take over a Reader Friday 🙂 I’m glad these are useful. So many resources for us to utilize.

      Have a great weekend, too!

  6. Excellent job, Dale! Nice to see you on “the other side.” 😉 I love Libby. It’s easy-to-use and great for research. Question: Is C.L.A.M.S. nationwide or only available in New England?

    • Thank you, Sue! I appreciate the chance to post here.

      I checked out C.L.A.M.S.–it’s a library cooperative on the Cape, much like my own Washington County Cooperative Library System where I live in Oregon. CLAMS states that they currently have 190K card holders, which is terrific, especially for a constellation of smaller communities.

      The library system I worked at for many years, Multnomah County Library, has around 450K card holders, which includes folks from neighboring Washington and Clackamas Counties here in the Portland metro area (combined population close to 2 million). I’d say you are doing great for library participation!

  7. One of the last things that works in L.A. is our library system. I remember how grown up I felt when I got my first library card…I still visit the same branch I grew up in. But I can order any book in any branch and have it sent to my local. The databases online are amazing, as in the digitized archive of the Times going all the way back to the late 1800s. I used this extensively for research for TROUBLE IS MY BEAT, my 1940s Hollywood novellas.

    Another valuable library, esp. for nonfiction, is Project Gutenberg, which digitizes public domain works. You can search by topic and find all sorts of hidden treasures.

    • Jim, wonderful to learn you are still using the library you grew up in, and leveraging the ability to have books requested from all over your library system and delivered to your branch. Digitized newspaper archives are very handy for research, as you illustrated.

      Thanks for the mention of Project Gutenberg–it’s a rich resource and will worth utilizing.

  8. Great list!

    Around me the municipal libraries have either merged or combined card catalogs. From the website you can search multiple libraries. E-books are readily available as well.

    COVID also brought pick up service. It is still around. Go online. Order your books and choose a time and branch. Drive by and pick up at the curb.

    Oh, recently St. Louis County Library started laptop checkout. You can get a chromebook and hotspot for two weeks at a time, if you have your library card.

    • Thanks, Alan. And thanks for the great tips, too. Glad to see you are leveraging the larger library system your local branch is a part of–so many more books and resources available when you do.

      Curbside pickup is wonderful and I hope it remains.

      The library system I worked for also did laptop checkout, but only in the building. Being able to borrow a Chromebook for two weeks with hotspot ability is a great option.

  9. Interesting resources, Dale. I took several hours of courses on research back in graduate-school ancient times when a computer was the size of an industrial fridge, and you imputed questions on punch cards. Normal research was all shelves, giant data tomes, and rooms full of card catalogues. I had to figure out the computer and the Internet by myself, but a surprising amount of skills passed over.

    One thing I discovered that we shouldn’t give up is wandering a bit in the paper shelves. I was researching the plants and flowers of South America for a romantic adventure and ventured a bit beyond that specific section of the Dewey decimal shelves and found a book on the migration of Confederate families to Brazil after the end of the Civil War. A spark was lit, and my novel took a totally different shape in its world building. Serendipity is a real thing.

  10. “Serendipity is a real thing.” I couldn’t have put it better, Marilyn. I loved the paper card catalog for that reason alone. The same for browsing the shelves and having magic happen when I made a new discovery. This is one reason I set my new library mystery series in the 1980s–I loved that bygone library era.

    It’s why I bought not one but two different editions of the Abridged Dewey Decimal Classification and Relative Index, one from 1978 and one from 1990. The ability to wander through subject classifications is more serendipity.

  11. Good morning Dale and Steve!

    Great article, Dale. Thank you for this valuable information. Libraries are wonderful treasure chests, and you have given us more keys.

    Some of my dearest memories are of taking our son to the local library when he was just a tyke. We would leave with armloads of pre-school children’s books and spend lots of time reading. Our son volunteers with Project Gutenberg now.

    I wasn’t aware of NoveList, but it sounds like a resource I can use — not only as a tool to query, but also to keep pace with the comps in my genre.

    And Overdrive is a treasure in itself. Although I love visiting the library, I like to read novels on my iPad, so I’m a heavy user of this tool.

    Thanks again!

    • Good morning, Kay! You’re very welcome. Thanks for sharing your dear memories of taking your young son to the library. I loved meeting toddlers and pre-schoolers, and being part of their first experiences at the library. I loved giving toddler story times and reading to young children, but also helping them find what they wanted, be it books on dinosaurs, fire trucks, or princesses and princes.

      Wonderful that your son now volunteers for Project Gutenberg!

      Do checkout NoveList. I think you’ll find it worthwhile. And I’m glad to see you are using the digital library. There’s so much there.

      Have a wonderful Friday!

  12. I’m pretty lucky here in the ATL…

    The Atlanta-Fulton Public Library has 32 branches from one end of the county to the other, and an internet system that allows search, reserve, and “delivery” to whatever branch I choose (as well as return to whatever is most convenient) – 30 day check outs, with up to two on-line renewals (for a de-facto 90 day check out period).

    Similarly, Georgia has a statewide system of most systems (the AFPL is not among them), that allows pick-up/drop-off to the nearest branch, but for two week loans, with at least two renewals for a six week check out…)

    PLUS most of the other online services and downloads discussed above…

    I’ve had the AFPL card since I moved to Fulton County back in the dark-pre-net ages, trading in my Newnan Carnegie card, which replaced my Coral Gables Library card I got when I was may 8 or 9 or so… (and remembering the scents and smells of new construction when they built the (then) new Gables library come back whenever I walk a jobsite here during my day-job… I sometimes wonder if wandering the construction site, watching things come together, influenced my “professional” career… and how I go about planning and “building” my writing…

    All this to say, thanks for the deeper dive into what my good friends at the Hobgood-Palmer Branch in Fairburn are willing to do… besides allowing me to ramble and make their ears bleed…

    • Wonderful to hear that you are an avid user of the excellent Atlanta-Fulton Library System, George. You have so much at your finger tips.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  13. The first libraries I used were school resource rooms, but in 1947, I also got a card at the nearest LA branch, the Angeles Mesa library. I remember taking a big stack of books home with me that first time. I haven’t been back there since the 60s, but it still exists, yet to become a victim of progressive times:,_Los_Angeles.JPG

    I’ve included libraries and librarians in two of my novels and one short story (“The Last Librarian”) as major elements.

    “When they found him on that final winter morning, they downed their nuclear jack-hammers, removed their iridescent dymondyte helmets, and silently encircled him. He stared upward, unseeing, at the ancient frescoes circling the rotunda high above. Twenty four volumes insulated his frail body from the night-cold marble floor: Bradbury beneath his snow-white head, Shakespeare beneath his feet. His blue-veined hands, now pale with death, gently held Wind In The Willows. The demolition foreman fumbled at his belt and turned off the fusion generator outside. Silence filled the library for the last time, a requiem unsung….”

    • Such a powerful scene here. Thanks for sharing! And I think you take the crown here today at the KZB for the reader using the library the longest 🙂 Inspiring to hear this!

      • Thank you, Dale. I hope there will always be libraries, but recently, a Southern California librarian with decades of service was removed for entirely specious reasons.

  14. Thanks for doing today’s Reader Friday blog, Dale. I think it was a great success. Certainly, readers got their money’s worth, and I wouldn’t be surprised if several more comments trickle in tonight and tomorrow.

    Have a great weekend!

  15. Thanks for this terrific insider’s look, Dale. I’m checking in late today. In a way I’m glad b/c, if I’d read your post this morning, I’d have been hopelessly sidetracked down the library rabbit hole and wouldn’t have finished my chores!

    You must have been more popular with kids than Santa Claus. I can imagine some of those kids grew up, brought their own children into the library, and told them, “This is where Mr. Smith used to read us stories. He introduced me to Treasure Island…”

    What a wonderful legacy you gave to more readers than you’ll ever know.

    • Thanks so much, Debbie! In fact, I did have the pleasure of having several patrons who I’d helped as young children bring their children to my story times. Meant more than I can put into words.

      I know what you mean about library rabbit holes, too 🙂

      Hope you have a wonderful weekend.

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