I am looking to decrease the time I waste looking for a book in the library. I generally know exactly what book I want, but not where in the library it is located. (Finding out what book you want, is a matter for a whole range of other questions.)

My university has 4 libraries across its campus. One for Art/Humanities/Business, one for Education, one for Science/Engineering and one for Law. All are multistory buildings.

Normally I will just use the library for my area, (that I am familiar with) but occasionally I will have to visit another for something cross-disciplinary.

The libraries separately shelf, books, periodicals, quartros and a few other types of publication.

Shelves are not always laid out in a linear order -- for space constraints and historical reasons, no doubt.

How can I optimally find the resource I am looking for?

My current method is:

  1. Look up the book online. This will tell me the Library, the Floor, the media type (Book or Periodical etc), and its spine information: Dewey Decimal, year, author name and title.
  2. Go to that floor. Walk past each and every shelf until I find the one that lines up with the Media type and Dewey Decimal range.
  3. Entry that row and move, checking the Decimals every meter or so, on one shelf.
  4. When I get to roughly the right area, check all spine codes til I find the book.

My latest failure at this, was in step 2, Finding the shelf. I was looking for a periodical with code 401.9. I found the area with most periodicals on the floor, shelves we sequentially ordered from 200-399, then form 700 onwards. Skipping the 400s section I was looking for. After quiet a while of looking, eventually found the 400s section. It turned out that because there were so few 400s in this particular library/floor it was combined with the Quartros, and was in shelf sequentially after the 400 series books.

I figure there has got to be a better way.

I realized after, when I placed the journal in the re-shelving area, that while the re-shelving area had a section for 300 series Books, 300 series quartos and 300 series periodicals. It only has a section for 400 series anything. Thus if I had have looked in the re-shelving section at the start, I would have realized something was up with the 400 series, and known to be on the lookout for them to be all together. Thus I figure there are other productivity tricks to get the layout of a library quickly.

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    "Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass, and on that simple equation rests the whole of L-space. It is via L-space that all books are connected (quoting the ones before them, and influencing the ones that come after). But there is no time in L-space. Nor is there, strictly speaking, any space. Nevertheless, L-space is infinitely large and connects all libraries, everywhere and everywhen. It’s never further than the other side of the bookshelf, yet only the most senior and respected librarians know the way in." --Terry Pratchett
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 5:22
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    Is this a new form of the traveling salesman problem?
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 6:11
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    Is there no overview map of the library that would tell you where the 400 books are? If not, suggest putting up such a map. Apart from that, there likely is little we can suggest beyond "get to know your library", which unfortunately does not generalize well. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:17
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    I likely am not "getting" the problem you have. Is there no online system that will point you to the right shelf, if not even to the exact place that the book should be in?
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 9:22
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    How can any non-local person answer these details? Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 10:31

3 Answers 3


Ask a librarian. They usually know the place well, and are often quite happy to help.

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    @Oxinabox I must agree with jakebeal here. My personal experience with librarians is that they are more than willing to help because they are often bored. Like you, I spent quite a bit time in a library to find a book, then a librarian approached me and asked me what I was looking for. She found the book I wanted in 5 minutes. She then said please asked next time if I need a book. She was worrying about losing her job eventually after the institute installed a self service auto-book borrowing machine. She wanted to do something to prove her existence is worth her salary.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 6:25
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    @Oxinabox you don't waste librarians' time, that's their job! :)
    – FraEnrico
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:04
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    @ChrisWhite: That is often the case for smaller, more specific libraries, but I can't imaging this being the case for the main library of a university. Even in the smaller libraries, there should be a librarian responsible, although they often are not on "guard duty", that is done by undergrads. You can still ask the undergrad for the location of the librarians office and his or her normal work hours and then adapt to only visit the library when the librarian is present.
    – skymningen
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 13:51
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    Librarians are awesome. And I'm not talking about the series. Ask Michael Moore what he thinks of librarians. This is the best one line answer I've seen in the year so far. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 15:16
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    @ChrisWhite all universities' libraries have a librarian in charge, but one librarian may be in charge of more than one library, that is why the smaller ones might seem vacant librarian-wise. In some jurisdictions it is illegal to have a library without a librarian. In all the others its just plain stupid. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 15:18

I don't know what university you attend, so I don't know their library services. But my advise would be: learn how to use their online tools (the library catalogs in primis) because they are usually much more sophisticated than you think. In modern catalogs, you can have a personal area where you can store your search queries and your search results, so that you can build up lists of materials online before actually going to the physical place. You can narrow down your search results by date, subject, author, and you can get very rich and accurate lists of readings without actually checking the books.

Also check references from the books you read and bibliographies: they provide a list of relevant materials, so you know what to look for in the first place. Wandering through the stacks is great for serendipity, because you can find similar or relevant books just by browsing, but it takes time (exciting experience, though) and it's good for casual discovery rather than for finding the right materials.

Since you mention that you look in 400 section I take that you study language. That is a discipline where books are still very relevant, but don't forget to check the vast online journals about the subject, which contain up-todate research about your topics.

Finally, ask the librarian is the best solution: they know their collection better than you could ever do, and they know how to make the best out of the online search better than you'll ever do. If it looks like they are lazy, or they are not good enough, simply insist and demand more: they have to be up to the task.

DISCLAIMER: I'm an academic librarian.

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    This is really good general purpose advice towards library use. But doesn't really touch on the core question of physically locating a shelf. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:17
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    The point was to make the physically locating a shelf less needed.
    – FraEnrico
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:52
  • You could use this advice (simply demand more) to insist that they draw a map of the shelves with media type and Dewey Decimal range for every shelf. They should make this map available online so all library users can access it and print it out if they want. Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 8:26

Outside the box answer: See if you can avoid stepping into the library at all!

There may be a way to get the book you want without leaving your office. It's worth while to spend some time investigating all the services your library provides. Sometimes they are buried in obscure corners of the library website, or have unintuitive acronyms, so that you might not have discovered them before. A friendly chat with your subject librarian can be valuable here.

Some things I have taken advantage of in the past:

  • E-book databases. Some publishers offer electronic versions of their books under an institutional subscription agreement. For example, Springer has Springer Link. This may even be integrated with your library's online catalog, so that when you look up your book in the catalog, you also get a link to the electronic version.

  • Electronic document delivery. You send your library a request for what you want, and they send someone into the stacks to fetch it, scan it, and email you a PDF. They usually won't do full books (for labor and copyright reasons) but they can often do an individual article or chapter. They can often also get books/articles that the library doesn't own, either by first getting the item via inter-library loan, or (more often these days) asking some institution that does have it to do the scanning. Libraries I've used can usually handle these requests within a day or two, so if you don't need the item right this minute, you can save yourself a trip to the stacks.

  • Physical document delivery. You send in a request for what you want, they send someone into the stacks to fetch it, charge it out to your account, and deliver it to your office (via campus mail or their own couriers). Note that even if such a service exists, it may or may not be available to all library users (for example, it may be offered to faculty but not graduate students).

  • Google Books, if you only need to read a couple of pages.

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    I like an excuse to leave my office once in a while...
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 18:14
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    Then ask the library to pull the item for you and have it at the desk for you to pick up. Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 5:29

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