The simple answer is that you can look by keyword, author, title, or subject.
Just type your search terms in the appropriately labeled box and look at whatever results come up. Sounds like Google, only not quite.
The more complicated answer is that a library catalog is a database with separate indexes for keyword, author, title, subject, and so on.
Unlike the Web, they are structured in such a way that there is only one official way to express a name (personal or geographic), title, or subject.
They are also structured in such a way that you do not have to know these official forms before you begin a search, but if you can recognize them, it’s a lot easier to make sense of your results and refine your searches.
Catalogs result from intellectual work!
I must confess that before I got my first library job, I used the card catalog a lot (that should date me!). But it never occurred to me that some individual actually wrote the descriptions on all those cards. I never stopped to think that someone actually determined the form of the author’s name, the way the title was written, the subject headings, etc.!
And it also never occurred to me that librarians had gotten together and agreed on a set of rules for the layout of all of those cards.
That’s kind of an embarrassing admission, because my mother was a librarian. She never worked outside the home after I was born, but she was a volunteer cataloger for our church and for whatever grade school I or my sibs attended. I remember her sitting at the dining room table with a stack of books, a stack of library cards, and a typewriter. I recognized that some of the books were reference books that she used all the time. I just didn’t understand what she was doing besides typing.
It was not until I was ABD (All But Dissertation) on my doctorate that I realized that compiling the information in a library catalog is an intellectual exercise.
Each description is a piece of original research, and ultimately a publication written by a highly skilled individual. If I of all people didn’t know that, what are the chances that anyone else does besides folks who work in a library?
A broken tool
I have just done several Google searches trying to find anyplace where a dialog is taking place between librarians and library patrons. What I have found are mostly static pages posted by libraries for their patrons.
I am not surprised, but I am disappointed. After all, Libraryland is busy arguing over a new set of cataloging rules.
Now that the library catalog has moved online, a catalog has three primary aspects: the actual content of the descriptions, the way they are encoded for the computer, and the way they are displayed on a computer screen.
The new rules, like the ones they replace, are only a content standard. There is also a lot of grumbling over our nearly 40-year-old encoding standard.
Meanwhile, the displays are a mess. There is only one display standard, the so-called International Standard Bibliographic Descriptions (ISBD), published between 1971 and 1977. They were intended to standardize card catalogs.
No online catalog that I know of uses ISBD, but as far as I can tell, there has not even been talk of a display standard since the advent of online catalogs.
Everyone is concerned about the convenience of the users, but I see much more speculation than solid research about who the users are, what they need, and how much they know. I hope that my library-related posts on this blog will start a dialog with library patrons and help the library community get the answers they need to help you better.