WorldCat: Your One-Stop Library Catalog

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Abby Hargreaves

Staff Writer

Abby Hargreaves is a New Hampshire native living and working as a Children’s Librarian in Washington, D.C. She fulfills the gamut of the librarian stereotype with a love of cats, coffee, and crocheting (and likes a good run of alliteration). Her MLIS degree enjoys the company of a BA in English from Hollins University, making Abby an advocate of women's universities. Her favorite color is yellow.

When your local library does not have the book you want in their collection, what do you do? For most folks, particularly if they’re searching without the aid of a library staff member, the go-to solution is to purchase the book. But even then, costs can sometimes be prohibitively expensive or unjustifiable. Fortunately, many libraries (including public, academic, special, and beyond) participate in interlibrary loan (ILL). ILL enables patrons to borrow books from other libraries with their library acting as a sort of proxy. Depending on the library, yours might charge for this service to cover the liability of checking out a book from an unrelated library and the cost of shipping, but these fees are typically far less than the cost of the book. Beyond this, some library lovers are lucky enough to live in a reciprocal area, which allows them to hold library cards (often for free) at nearby systems thanks to an agreement amongst participating libraries. And, even beyond this, some libraries allow users who don’t live in the area to pay for the membership that is free to those in their community. But back to our dilemma — the book you want is not at your library and you aren’t interested in purchasing it. How can you find out where the book is available to borrow? In a word, WorldCat.

WorldCat is, in their own words, “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.” More specifically, for our purposes, WorldCat is a massive catalog that taps into the catalogs of participating libraries to include materials such as books, DVDs, CDs, articles, visual content, and more.

The site is often used by library staff to manage ILL requests, but it can be useful for patrons searching for themselves. While library staff would still have to submit ILL requests to an owning library, starting the transaction knowing that the book is available at all elsewhere can be useful. Or, you may discover that a nearby university library holds the item you want. With many universities allowing public access to their stacks, it may be more practical to get the item yourself than wait for the ILL to be processed. WorldCat is a great way to check who else nearby has collected the item in question with fairly little effort and time. Helpfully, WorldCat will indicate to you (in a column to the right on a given item’s page) the approximate distance between you and the libraries with the material.

Another great use for WorldCat is research purposes. While your library might have a robust collection, it probably is not entirely complete in any given topic. WorldCat gets you closer to that sense of a complete list because it pulls from so many libraries. So, while your local library may produce 53 items for a keyword search of “cicadas,” WorldCat offers 12,746. It’s not a perfect system and there may be duplicate items listed, but the gulf between 53 and 12,746 certainly promises a good amount of material available in other libraries not available in yours. 

Even if you don’t end up using the materials listed in the search results, knowing that they exist can be useful for all sorts of research. For example, from a librarian’s perspective, it can be a useful tool for readers’ advisory. In addition to linked subject headings that can direct you to more material within WorldCat that is about the topic of interest, WorldCat also provides space for reviews. While the reviews are not as plentiful as what you might find at Goodreads (though some Goodreads reviews are imported depending on the item), it’s still one more place to get information about the item and better inform what you decide to read next.

Users of WorldCat also enjoy a simplified catalog record view. Rather than the coded and complex MARC record system you sometimes get when clicking on, for example, “staff view” in your library’s catalog, you get nearly the same information but in plain English on WorldCat. Find information such as the length of the book, ISBN, target audience, type of material, and more under “Details.”

On occasion, you may also discover lists of books around a topic of theme. For instance, this record for A Court of Wings and Ruin links to a list of YA books with a pattern naming convention put together by another WorldCat user. You can create your own lists once you’ve created a free account with the database.

So, if you’re disappointed to find your library doesn’t have that obscure book you really need for your exacting garden gnome design, check WorldCat before you give up. You can either use it to give your librarian a heads up that it’s available at another library and you’d like to request an ILL, go pick it up yourself at the owning library if it’s near enough, or find a comparable item that is perhaps more available to you.