Chapter 5. Libraries and Library Catalogs

Table of Contents

Research Libraries

Although most public, national, and academic libraries in North America and Europe are open to qualified researchers, many require some kind of professional identification for admission and a few require advance application. Researchers planning to work in an unfamiliar library—especially in special collections or at a European institution—should inquire well in advance about admission procedures, restrictions on materials in special collections, and hours of operation.

Becoming familiar with a major research library can occupy the better part of a morning, but researchers can reduce this lost time by requesting in advance a copy of any locally produced guide (which usually prints maps and a stack guide) and consulting the library’s Web site and published descriptions of collections or catalogs. For example, one can save considerable time in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress by recording call numbers in advance from the Library of Congress Online Catalog (E260); many libraries sponsor journals that print articles on their holdings and news of acquisitions; and most allow public access over the Internet to their electronic catalogs. Most library Web sites and commercial Web search engines provide links to library OPACs (online public-access catalogs) worldwide. For valuable advice on preparing to visit an unfamiliar library, see Thorpe, Use of Manuscripts in Literary Research (F275).

Major general research libraries in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain include the following:

Important specialized libraries include the following:

  • American Antiquarian Society (

  • Folger Shakespeare Library ( The following remain essential complements to the Folger’s OPAC: Catalog of Printed Books of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. 28 vols. Boston: Hall, 1970. First Supplement. 3 vols. 1976. Second Supplement. 2 vols. 1981. Catalog of Manuscripts of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. 3 vols. 1971. First Supplement. 1987. 524 pp.

  • Huntington Library ( Huntington Library Quarterly: Studies in English and American History and Literature. 1931– . Quarterly. Former title: Huntington Library Bulletin (1931–37).

Marcuse, Reference Guide for English Studies (B90), pp. 21–33, has a valuable annotated list of major research libraries.

Guides to Libraries


World Guide to Libraries. Berlin: de Gruyter–Saur, 1966– . Annual. Z721.I63 027′.0025. E-book.

A guide to 42,595 research, national, governmental, public, and academic libraries in 210 countries (as of the 26th ed. [for 2012]). Entries are organized alphabetically by country, then type of library (national, general research, academic, professional school, government, ecclesiastical, corporate and business, special, and public), then place, and then name of library (with academic libraries listed by institution). A typical entry includes the name of the library; address; telephone, fax, and telex numbers; Web site; e-mail address; director or head; main departments (with descriptions of important holdings or special collections in a few instances); special divisions; statistics on holdings; and indication of participation in interlibrary loan. Indexed by libraries (with academic libraries entered by institution). Since the material is based on questionnaires, the detail, accuracy, and currency of descriptions vary, but the World Guide to Libraries is the fullest international source for basic information on libraries worldwide.

More thorough guides to individual countries include the following:

  • American Library Directory. Medford: Information Today, 1923– . Annual. Available in print and online. A guide to public, academic, government, and special libraries in the United States, Puerto Rico and other regions administered by the United States, and Canada (along with a smattering in foreign countries). Within divisions for each of the three areas, libraries are listed alphabetically by state, region, or province, then city, then library or institution name. A typical entry includes name, address, telephone and fax numbers, Internet address and World Wide Web URL, major administrative personnel and subject specialists, statistics on holdings, lists of special collections, automation information, and names of departmental libraries with addresses and information on holdings. Indexed by names. The directory is the most thorough general guide to North American libraries.

  • Special libraries, divisions of academic libraries, archives, and research centers in the United States and Canada are more exhaustively covered in the most recent edition of Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers (Detroit: Gale-Cengage, 1963– ; irregular; updated between editions by New Special Libraries; online through Gale Directory Library). The best approach is through the subject index.

  • Aslib Directory of Information Sources in the United Kingdom. 17th ed. London: Routledge–Taylor and Francis, 2013. 1,335 pp. A directory that ranges beyond libraries to include institutions, record offices, repositories, archives, groups, art galleries, charities, and other organizations. Organized alphabetically by name of organization, entries typically include address, telephone and fax numbers, e-mail address, URL, description of the organization, restrictions on admission, subject interests, special collections (citing name or giving a brief description), OPAC access, and publications. Two indexes: abbreviations and acronyms; subjects. Unfortunately, the minimal space allocated to describing subject interests and special collections and the lack of sufficiently full subject indexing make the directory much less useful than it might be. Although less thorough in coverage, Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections (E210) is superior as a guide to collections.

Guides to Collections


Ash, Lee, and William G. Miller, comps. Subject Collections: A Guide to Special Book Collections and Subject Emphases as Reported by University, College, Public, and Special Libraries and Museums in the United States and Canada. 7th ed., rev. and enl. 2 vols. New Providence: Bowker, 1993. Z731.A78 026′.00025′7.

A subject guide to specialized collections in North American libraries and other institutions. Most local history collections and those in separate departmental units of large academic libraries are excluded. Under subject headings, entries are listed alphabetically by state (with United States territories and Canadian provinces appearing after states), then city, and then library. A typical entry includes library address; kinds of holdings and cataloging status; and notes on specific holdings, size of the collection, guides or catalogs, and restrictions on use. Because most entries are based on questionnaires, the sophistication and specificity of the descriptions vary considerably. Although many subject headings are frustratingly broad, there are numerous headings for individual authors and literary topics. Subject Collections is the best guide to identifying specialized library collections, but it retains some unrevised entries from the preceding edition, omits or inadequately describes collections in several major research libraries, and includes disproportionately lengthy descriptions of holdings that hardly justify the appellation “collection.”

Collections in some European libraries are described in

  • Gallico, Alison, ed. Directory of Special Collections in Western Europe. London: Bowker, 1993. 146 pp. Entries (organized by country, then alphabetically by city) include the name of the collection, address, a brief description of subjects, details of the kinds and size of holdings, information on access to the collection, and a list of finding aids and catalogs. Of the 343 collections described, 131 are from the United Kingdom, which is more thoroughly covered in Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections (E210). Two indexes: institutions; subjects (in English, French, and German).

  • Lewanski, Richard C., comp. Subject Collections in European Libraries. 2nd ed. London: Bowker, 1978. 495 pp. Organized alphabetically by broad Dewey Decimal Classification, then alphabetically by country, then city, and then library, entries include address, information on cataloging status, and notes on the size and content of holdings, restrictions, and published finding aids. Indexed by subject headings. Although many important collections are omitted or incompletely described and subject headings are frequently too broad, this is a useful preliminary guide to subject collections in European libraries, especially those with no published descriptions of their collections.

Although these two directories omit or incompletely describe several important collections, they can be useful preliminary guides to defined collections in European libraries, especially those not described in print elsewhere.


A Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Ed. B. C. Bloomfield. 2nd ed. London: Lib. Assn., 1997. 740 pp. Z791.A1 D58 027′.0025′41.

A guide to collections in public, national, academic, church, and institutional libraries (along with a very few private collections that are accessible to researchers). Manuscript holdings are noted only when closely related to rare book collections. Organized by country, roughly by county (in the case of England), city, and then institution, entries typically include address, telephone number, hours, requirements for admission, research facilities, and sometimes a brief history of the library. Each collection is then described separately, typically with a note on its origin and history, indication of size, summary of content and major holdings, and citations to finding aids. The thoroughness and quality of the descriptions vary considerably; the better ones cite specific works by referring to standard bibliographies such as the Short-Title Catalogues (M1990 and M1995), note unrecorded works, and comment on provenance. Indexed by persons, places, and subjects; however, the indexing is insufficiently thorough. For some cities (notably London) and individual libraries (such as the British Library and the Bodleian), the entries offer the best available general descriptions of collections. While the second edition redresses most of the serious flaws of the first (significant omissions, uneven descriptions, frequent typographical errors), it remains incompletely indexed. For additions and corrections, see Bloomfield, ““A Directory of Rare Books and Special Collections: Some Corrections and Additions”,” Rare Books Newsletter 59 (1998): 41–42.

The following identify some additional collections:

  • The Aslib Directory of Literary and Historical Collections in the UK. Ed. Keith W. Reynard. London: Aslib, 1993. 287 pp. The descriptions of the more than 1,000 collections tend to be brief and, inevitably, depend on questionnaire responses for accuracy and informativeness, but the subject index seems reasonably thorough.

  • Directory of Literary Societies and Author Collections. Ed. Roger Sheppard. London: Lib. Assn., 1994. 288 pp. Although a rather hit-or-miss affair (especially in the coverage of literary societies), this directory does identify a few additional collections. Although ostensibly limited to English literature and related topics, it includes a number of non-English-language authors.

Additional information on theater collections is available in Diana Howard, comp., Directory of Theatre Resources: A Guide to Research Collections and Information Services, 2nd ed. ([London:] Lib. Assn. Information Services Group and Soc. for Theatre Research, 1986; 144 pp.), a guide to public and private collections in libraries, museums, and record offices, as well as information services provided by organizations in England, Scotland, and Wales. Few collections housed in theaters are included, and the descriptions, based on questionnaires, vary considerably in precision and detail; nonetheless, this is an important guide to collections of theater material.

See also

Geist, Directory of Popular Culture Collections (U6290).

Schatz, Directory of Afro-American Resources (Q3730).

Special Collections in Children’s Literature (U5460).

Interlibrary Loan

From time to time, researchers need to obtain books, dissertations, articles, or microforms through interlibrary loan. While each institution will have its own procedures and forms, most United States libraries comply with the Interlibrary Loan Code for the United States (rev. 2008;, which requires that requests include full bibliographic information. Many libraries now have Web forms that allow researchers to file requests electronically, and several bibliographic databases (such as WorldCat [E225]) can automatically generate requests.

Filling a request sometimes takes several weeks; however, the process can be expedited if researchers specify exactly the edition required or discriminate between journals with the same or similar titles. Some research libraries do not lend any of their holdings and most will not send rare, valuable, fragile, or unique books; manuscripts; or reference books. Most libraries, however, will photocopy or film manuscripts or rare items if their physical condition or restrictions on use permit reproduction. Although some libraries will lend dissertations, copies must usually be obtained through UMI (formerly University Microfilms International) or (for British theses) through EThOS: Electronic Theses Online Service (