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Doing Research at the Library of Congress

I. Overview Sources

When conducting research at the Library of Congress, the single most important thing to do is this: talk to the reference librarians. This library is the largest that has ever existed anywhere on earth in all of human history; it has over 130 million items in three buildings, and is growing at the rate of 10,000 items per day (over a thousand of which are new books). Its twenty public reading rooms offer free access to hundreds of subscription databases that are not searchable on the open Internet, along with tens of thousand of published reference sources—bibliographies, encyclopedias, biographical sources, chronologies, etc.—that are not digitized at all. The only way to exploit these resources efficiently is to let the reference staff contribute their expertise to your research project. If you work entirely on your own you will probably miss more than you find, without realizing you’ve missed anything. Remember that the librarians are there to help you.

Among the many resources available to researchers who are exploring new or unfamiliar topics, two databases in particular often serve to identify concise overview articles in any subject area. They are:
  • Reference Universe. This is a subscription service that indexes all of the articles in thousands of specialized encyclopedias in all subject areas.It is not a full-text database; it is an index to printed sources that can usually be found on the open shelves in one or more of the Library’s reading rooms. Encyclopedia articles are often excellent starting points for research because they provide brief overviews of subjects, written for nonspecialists; and they often include selective bibliographies of recommended sources. Reference Universe is continually growing; new encyclopedias are indexed every two weeks. The database provides access to both article titles and the sources’ back-of-the-book indexes.

    Once you have identified likely articles you must then check the Library’s online catalog to get the call numbers for the encyclopedias in which they appear.
  • Web of Science. The Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia produces this subscription service; it is an index to over 8,500 scholarly journals, internationally, in all subject areas. One of its particularly useful features is that it enables you to limit your results to “Review articles.” These are not “book reviews”; rather, they are state-of-the-art assessments written to provide comprehensive overviews of current scholarship in particular subject areas. Unlike encyclopedia articles, which are written for nonspecialists, literature-review articles often assume familiarity with technical or other jargon; and their bibliographies will often include hundreds of items rather than just a handful of highly recommended sources.

    Again, once you have identified the articles you wish to see, you must then search the Library’s online catalog to find the call numbers for the relevant journals in which the review articles appear. Some, not all, of these articles may be available in electronic form.

Neither of these databases is freely available on the Internet.

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  June 22, 2017
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