Writing Well: Book Learning

Book Learning

Books are “user friendly”—they're light, easy to use, and familiar. They can't crash as computers can, either. Best of all, since it takes time to write and publish a book, they tend to be reliable sources, but more on that in “Cast a Critical Eye.” Right now, you'll learn how to find the books you need to complete your research.

Since libraries have a lot of books—a university library can have over a million volumes, a community library over 100,000 tomes—classification systems were created to track the volumes. Knowing how these systems work can help you find the books you need to complete your research. It's all based on the concept of call numbers.

Word Watch

The Dewey or Library of Congress classification designation for a book is its call number.

Books are divided into two broad classes: fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is catalogued under the author's last name. Nonfiction books, however, are classified in two different ways: the Dewey Decimal classification system and the Library of Congress classification system. The systems use completely different sets of letters and numbers, as you'll learn.

Dewey Decimal Classification System

Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) had a thing for order, which may have made life at home somewhat tense, but it did revolutionize libraries. Before Dewey came along, many libraries filed books by color or size, a chaotic system at best. Dewey's classification system, published in 1876, divided non-fiction books into 10 broad categories:

000-099General works such as encyclopedias
200-299Religion (including mythology)
300-399Social sciences (including folklore, legends, government, manners, vocations)
400-499Language (including dictionaries and grammar books)
500-599Pure science (mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, nature study)
600-699Technology (applied science, aviation, building, engineering, homemaking)
700-799Arts (photography, drawing, painting, music, sports)
800-899Literature (plays, poetry)
900-999History (ancient, modern, geography, travel)
Write Angles

Be sure to copy down the call number exactly as it appears in the card catalogue. Otherwise, it will be tough—if not impossible— to find the book.

Library of Congress Classification System

The Library of Congress Classification system, in contrast, was designed for just one library—you guessed it, the Library of Congress. Since the Library of Congress system allows for finer distinctions than the Dewey system, it's been adopted by nearly all large college and university libraries. Here's how it works.

Write Angles

Because the Library of Congress system groups related topics together, you can often find unexpected but related avenues to follow as you research. You can use this to advantage by browsing the shelves as you gather the books you looked up.

Each Library of Congress classification call number starts with a letter, followed by a number, ending with a letter/number combination. For example, here's the call number for Jack London's The Sea Wolf: PS3523.046S43.

Author! Author!

Library call numbers don't work like the Celsius and Fahrenheit temperature systems, so there's no magical formula you can use to convert the call numbers in one system to the call numbers in the other system. To save yourself hours of extra work, choose one library system—either university or public—and stick with it.

The Library of Congress classification system has 20 classes, as follows:

A General Works
B Philosophy and religion
C History
D History and topography (except America)
E-F American history
G Geography, anthropology, folklore, manners, customs, recreation
H Social sciences
J Political sciences
K United States law
L Education
M Music
N Fine arts
P Language and literature
Q Science
R Medicine
S Agriculture
T Technology
U Military science
V Naval science
Z Bibliography and library science

Each category is further divided. For example, 500-599 covers “pure” science, including mathematics. The math books are shelved from 510-519; geometry is listed under 513. There are finer and finer categories. Dewey's system works so well that today it's used by most elementary schools, high schools, and small public libraries.

As with the Dewey system, each category in the Library of Congress system can be divided into subclasses.

Hunt and Peck

Whether you use an online card catalogue (even though there's no actual “card” involved) or a paper catalogue, there are three different ways that you can locate material in books:

  • Subject search
  • Title search
  • Author search
Write Angles

Other reference sources include archival materials (rare books, charts, etc.), atlases, audio-visual materials, government documents, indexes, interviews, book reviews, TV shows, surveys, and yearbooks.

Your topic determines how you search for a book. Since most research papers deal with topics and issues, you'll likely be searching by subject. Nonetheless, you'll probably have to check titles and authors as well. Consider all three ways to find information as you look through the card catalog.

Bargain Books

Writer's Block

Danger, Will Robinson: CD-ROM encyclopedias with video and sound often sacrifice text to make room for these multimedia bells-and-whistles. As a result, for serious research, print encyclopedias are usually a better bet. The exception is Britannica.com and the Columbia Encyclopedia, found on Infoplease.com. They are the gold standards for encyclopedias.

In addition to specific books on your topic, here are some general reference sources to consider:

  • Almanacs. These handy, easy-to-use reference guides are a great source for statistics and facts. The World Almanac and The Time almanac, with Information Please are the two best-known almanacs. They're updated every year.
  • Bibliographies. You'll save time if you find a bibliography, a list of books, articles, and other documents on a specific subject area. Well-known bibliographies include Guide to the Literature of Art History, Communication: A Guide to Information Sources, Science and Engineering Literature, and Social Work: A Bibliography.
  • Books in Print. This annual listing of books currently in print or slated for print can tell you if a book is still being issued by the publisher. If so, the library can order a copy of the book or you can buy one yourself at a book store. If not, well … let's not go there.
  • Encyclopedias. There are general encyclopedias (World Book, Britannica, Columbia, Colliers, Funk and Wagnalls) as well as technical ones. Both types can give you a reliable overview of your subject and topic.
  • Guide to Reference Books. Published by the American Library Association, this useful guide has five main categories: general reference works; humanities; social and behavioral sciences; history and area studies; and science, technology, and medicine.
  • Who's Who in America. Are you researching a famous person? If so check Who's Who, because it includes biographical entries on approximately 75,000 Americans and people linked to America. Who Was Who covers famous dead people.
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.