Skip to Main Content
Banner Example

Library Services: Glossary of Library Terms

Learn about Interlibrary Loan, instruction requests, reference, and course reserves.

Glossary of Library Terms - from the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science by Joan M. Reitz


A brief, objective representation of the essential content of a book, article, speech, report, dissertation, patent, standard, or other work, presenting the main points in the same order as the original but having no independent literary value. A well-prepared abstract enables the reader to 1) quickly identify the basic content of the document, 2) determine its relevance to their interests, and 3) decide whether it is worth their time to read the entire document. An abstract can be informative, indicative, critical, or written from a particular point of view (slanted).


The right of entry to a library or its collections. All public libraries and most academic libraries in the United States are open to the general public, but access to certain areas such as closed stacks, rare books, and special collections may be restricted. In a more general sense, the right or opportunity to use a resource that may not be openly and freely available to everyone.

annotated bibliography

A bibliography in which a brief explanatory or evaluative note is added to each reference or citation. An annotation can be helpful to the researcher in evaluating whether the source is relevant to a given topic or line of inquiry. The Cornell University Libraries provide an online guide on How to Prepare an Annotated Bibliography or try the OWL: Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.

APA style

A guide for typing research papers in the social sciences, developed by the American Psychological Association, which includes the proper format for typing notes and bibliographic citations.


The building, facility, or area that houses an archival collection (the term repository is preferred by most archivists). Also, to place documents in storage, usually to preserve them as a historical, informational, legal, or evidential record, permanently or for a finite or indefinite period of time.


A self-contained nonfiction prose composition on a fairly narrow topic or subject, written by one or more authors and published under a separate title in a collection or periodical containing other works of the same form. The length of a periodical article is often a clue to the type of publication--magazine articles are generally less than five pages long; scholarly journal articles, longer than five pages. Also, journal articles often include a brief abstract of the content (click here to see an example). Periodical articles are indexed, usually by author and subject, in periodical indexes and abstracting services, known as bibliographic databases when available electronically. Compare with column, editorial, and essay.


The knowledge and experience that qualifies a person to write or speak as an expert on a given subject. In the academic community, authority is indicated by credentials, previously published works on the subject, institutional affiliation, awards, imprint, reviews, patterns of citation, etc.

banned book

A book, the publication and/or sale of which has been prohibited or suppressed by ecclesiastical or secular authority because its content is considered objectionable or dangerous, usually for political and/or social reasons


Strictly speaking, a systematic list or enumeration of written works by a specific author or on a given subject, or that share one or more common characteristics (language, form, period, place of publication, etc.).


A system of logic developed by the English mathematician George Boole (1815-64) that allows the user to combine words or phrases representing significant concepts when searching an online catalog or bibliographic database by keywords. Three logical commands (sometimes called "operators") are available in most search software:

The OR command is used to expand retrieval by including synonyms and related terms in the query. See also: logical sum.

The AND command is used to narrow search results. Each time another concept is added using "and," the search becomes more specific.

The NOT command is used to exclude unwanted records from search results. See also: logical difference.

call number

A unique code printed on a label affixed to the outside of an item in a library collection, usually to the lower spine of a book. Assigned by the cataloger, the call number is also displayed in the bibliographic record that represents the item in the library catalog, to identify the specific copy of the work and give its relative location on the shelf.


A comprehensive list of the books, periodicals, maps, and other materials in a given collection, arranged in systematic order to facilitate retrieval (usually alphabetically by author, title, and/or subject). In most modern libraries the catalog is available online.


Prohibition of the production, distribution, circulation, or display of a work by a governing authority on grounds that it contains objectionable or dangerous material. The person who decides what is to be prohibited is called a censor. Commonly used methods include decree and confiscation, legislation, repressive taxation, and licensing to grant or restrict the right to publish.

circulating collection

Books and other materials that may be checked out by registered borrowers for use inside or outside the library.


The process of checking books and other materials in and out of a library.


A written reference to a specific work or portion of a work (book, article, dissertation, report, musical composition, etc.) produced by a particular author, editor, composer, etc., clearly identifying the document in which the work is to be found. The frequency with which a work is cited is sometimes considered a measure of its importance in the literature of the field.

controlled vocabulary

An established list of preferred terms from which a cataloger or indexer must select when assigning subject headings or descriptors in a bibliographic record, to indicate the content of the work in a library catalog, index, or bibliographic database.


The exclusive legal rights granted by a government to an author, editor, compiler, composer, playwright, publisher, or distributor to publish, produce, sell, or distribute copies of a literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, or other work, within certain limitations (fair use and first sale). Copyright law also governs the right to prepare derivative works, reproduce a work or portions of it, and display or perform a work in public.


The thoughtful analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of an artistic or literary work in which the primary considerations are its essential nature ("message"), the intentions of the artist or author, the effect of the work on its audience, its relationship to works of similar style or content, its influence on subsequent works, and its implications for critical theory.


The quality of being in progress, recent, or up-to-date. In information retrieval, the extent to which the content of a document or source reflects the existing state of knowledge about the subject. In research, the importance of currency varies, depending on the discipline. 


A large, regularly updated file of digitized information (bibliographic records, abstracts, full-text documents, directory entries, images, statistics, etc.) related to a specific subject or field, consisting of records of uniform format organized for ease and speed of search and retrieval and managed with the aid of database management system (DBMS) software.

digital divide

The gap in access to information resources and services between those with the means to purchase the computer hardware and software necessary to connect to the Internet and low-income families and communities that cannot afford network access. Public libraries are helping to bridge the gap between information "haves" and "have-nots".

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

A unique code preferred by publishers in the identification and exchange of the content of a digital object, such as a journal article, Web document, or other item of intellectual property. The DOI is persistent, meaning that the identification of a digital object does not change even if ownership of or rights in the entity are transferred. 

electronic book

A digital version of a traditional print book designed to be read on a personal computer or e-book reader.


The period during which the articles published in a periodical are not available in online full-text from a journal aggregator, usually the most recent one to three years.

electronic reserves

Items placed on reserve that an academic library makes available online to be read on a computer screen, downloaded, or printed as needed.

fair use

Conditions under which copying a work, or a portion of it, does not constitute infringement of copyright, including copying for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

finding aid

A published or unpublished guide, inventory, index, register, calendar, list, or other system for retrieving archival primary source materials that provides more detailed description of each item than is customary in a library catalog record.


An electronic resource that provides the entire text of a single work or of articles published in one or more journals, magazines, and/or newspapers. 

Google Books

After raising billions of dollars from an initial public stock offering, Google embarked on an ambitious project to digitally scan millions of books held in the collections of five major research libraries and make the contents searchable online.

Google Scholar

A Google service that allows users to search the Internet for scholarly literature across many disciplines using the company's proprietary search software. Search results are ranked by relevance using an algorithm that includes how many times the work has been cited in other scholarly literature. Many items are not free.

HathiTrust Digital Library

A digital preservation repository and highly functional access platform. It provides long-term preservation and access services for public domain and in copyright content from a variety of sources, including Google, the Internet Archive, Microsoft, and in-house partner institution initiatives.


When a book or other item is currently on loan, most libraries permit another borrower to place a "hold" on it. The patron who has the item checked out will not be permitted to renew it, and the person placing the "hold" will be entitled to check it out after it has been returned. 


Data presented in readily comprehensible form to which meaning has been attributed within the context of its use. In a more dynamic sense, the message conveyed by the use of a medium of communication or expression.

information literacy

Skill in finding the information one needs, including an understanding of how information is organized, familiarity with information resources, and knowledge of commonly used research techniques. The concept also includes the skills required to critically evaluate information content and employ it effectively, including its social, political, and cultural context and impact.

information need

A gap in a person's knowledge that, when experienced at the conscious level as a question, gives rise to a search for an answer.

information overload

A condition in which too much information is available on a topic, a common occurrence in online searching, particularly when the query is expressed in terms that are too general.

intellectual freedom

The right under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution of any person to read or express views that may be unpopular or offensive to some people, within certain limitations (libel, slander, etc.). Legal cases concerning free speech issues are heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

intellectual property

Tangible products of the human mind and intelligence entitled to the legal status of personal property, especially works protected by copyright, inventions that have been patented, and registered trademarks. An idea is considered the intellectual property of its creator only after it has been recorded or made manifest in specific form.


The point or process that joins two components of a data processing system, for example, the screen display that functions as intermediary between a software program and its human users.

interlibrary loan (ILL)

When a book or other item needed by a registered borrower is not owned by the library, a patron may request that it be borrowed from another library by filling out an interlibrary loan request via the library's Web site.

International Standard Book Number (ISBN)

A unique ten or thirteen digit standard number assigned to identify a specific edition of a book or other monographic publication issued by a given publisher.


A periodical devoted to disseminating original research and commentary on current developments in a specific discipline, sub-discipline, or field of study, usually published in quarterly, bimonthly, or monthly issues sold by subscription. Most scholarly journals are peer-reviewed. Scholars often use a current contents service to keep abreast of the journal literature in their fields of interest and specialization.


See: peer-reviewed.


A significant word or phrase that can be used as a search term in a free-text search to retrieve all the records containing it. Most online catalogs and databases include an option that allows the user to type words that describe the research topic (in any order) and retrieve records containing the search terms in the data fields the system is designed to search whenever the keywords option is selected. One disadvantage of a keywords search is that it does not take into account the meaning of the words used as input, so if a term has more than one meaning, irrelevant records may be retrieved.

library anxiety

Confusion, fear, and frustration felt by a library user, especially someone lacking experience, when faced with the need to find information in a library.

Library of Congress subject heading (LCSH)

A descriptive word or phrase selected by a subject specialist at the Library of Congress from the list of Library of Congress Subject Headings and assigned to a book or other item when first published to indicate its subject. Multiple subject headings are assigned when necessary or desirable. See also: controlled vocabulary.


A feature of well-designed online catalog or bibliographic database software that allows the user to employ various parameters to restrict the retrieval of entries containing the terms included in the search statement. Limiters are not standardized but typically include: publication date, material type, language, full-text, peer-reviewed (journal articles), and locally held.

literature review

A comprehensive survey of the works published in a particular field of study or line of research, usually over a specific period of time, in the form of an in-depth, critical bibliographic essay or annotated list in which attention is drawn to the most significant works.


A popular interest periodical usually containing articles on a variety of topics, written by various authors in a non-scholarly style. Most magazines are heavily illustrated, contain advertising, and are printed on glossy paper. Articles are usually short (less than five pages long), frequently unsigned, and do not include a bibliography or list of references for further reading.

MLA style

A format for typing research papers and citing sources in the humanities developed by the Modern Language Association of America and published in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

natural language

A human language in which the structure and rules have evolved from usage, usually over an extended period time, as opposed to an artificial language based on rules prescribed prior to its development and use, as in a computer language. In search software designed to handle input expressed in natural language, the user may enter the query in the same form in which it would be spoken or written ("Where can I find information about Frederick Douglass?" as opposed to the search statement "frederick douglass" or "su:douglass").


The use of hypertext links, icons, menu options, and search engines displayed on a Web page to move to other resources available on the Internet or to other pages within the same Web site.


In Boolean searching, the use of sets of parentheses to embed a logical operation within another logical operation to indicate the sequence in which the logical commands are to be executed by the computer (syntax). In the following example, the Boolean "or" command will be executed first, followed by "not" and then "and."

Search statement: children and violence and ((television or media) not cartoon*)

net neutrality

In network design, the principle that an electronic public information network, such as the Internet, will be maximally useful if all content, sites, and platforms are treated equally.


A serial publication, usually printed on newsprint and issued daily, on certain days of the week, or weekly, containing news, editorial comment, regular columns, letters to the editor, cartoons, advertising, and other items of current and often local interest to a general readership.


An acronym for online public access catalog, a database composed of bibliographic records describing the books and other materials owned by a library or library system, accessible via public terminals or workstations usually concentrated near the reference desk to make it easy for users to request the assistance of a trained reference librarian. Most online catalogs are searchable by author, title, subject, and keywords and allow users to print, download, or export records to an e-mail account.

open access

Information content made freely and universally available via the Internet in easy to read format, usually because the publisher maintains online archives to which access is free or has deposited the information in a widely known open access repository. By breaking the monopoly of publishers over the distribution of scientific research, open access makes access to scientific information more equitable and has the added advantage of allowing the author to retain copyright.

peer review

The process in which a new book, article, etc., is submitted by the prospective publisher to experts in the field for critical evaluation prior to publication, a standard procedure in scholarly publishing. Synonymous with juried review.


A serial publication with its own distinctive title, containing a mix of articles, editorials, reviews, or other short works written by more than one contributor, issued more than once, generally at regular stated intervals of less than a year, without prior decision as to when the final issue will appear. Although each issue is complete in itself, its relationship to preceding issues is indicated by enumeration, usually issue number and volume number printed on the front cover. Content is controlled by an editor or editorial board.

Persistent URL (PURL)

A type of URL (Uniform Resource Locator) that does not point directly to the location of an Internet resource, but rather to an intermediate resolution service (PURL server) that associates the stable PURL with the actual URL, and returns the URL to the client, which then processes the request in the usual manner.


Copying or closely imitating the work of another writer, composer, etc., without permission and with the intention of passing the results off as original work. In publishing, copyright law makes literary theft a criminal offense. At most colleges and universities, plagiarism is considered a moral and ethical issue, and instructors impose penalties on students who engage in it. Plagiarism can be avoided by expressing a thought, idea, or concept in one's own words. When it is necessary to paraphrase closely, the source should be documented in a footnote or endnote, in the same manner as a direct quotation.

The cut-and-paste capability of most word processing and Web browser software has facilitated plagiarism. Submission of an essay or term paper purchased prewritten from an online paper mill is one of the most flagrant forms of plagiarism.

Portable Document Format (PDF)

The format used for page description in the Adobe Acrobat document exchange program. With Adobe Acrobat Reader installed, PDF files can be displayed and printed in original format.

In full-text bibliographic databases, a "native PDF" file is received in a digital format from the publisher, reproducing the appearance of the original text and images with a high degree of clarity. A "scanned PDF" file is created by running a print copy of the text through a high-quality scanner. The result is then examined closely for legibility.

primary source

In scholarship, a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on a topic, used in preparing a derivative work. Primary sources include original manuscripts, periodical articles reporting original research or thought, diaries, memoirs, letters, journals, photographs, drawings, posters, film footage, sheet music, songs, interviews, government documents, public records, eyewitness accounts, newspaper clippings, etc.

public domain (PD)

Works not protected by copyright, or for which copyright has expired, which may be printed for distribution and sale, quoted, excerpted, reproduced, and made available online to the public without infringement, for example, a government document over which an agency decides not to exercise copyright in order to make its content widely known. Project Gutenberg is an example of a service that provides online full-text of literary works in the public domain.


Words or passages reproduced from a written work or repeated verbatim from an oral statement. Because words and phrases taken out of context may give a misleading impression of the whole, care must be taken in selecting quotations. A passage quoted incorrectly is a misquotation.

Brief quotations are set in the text, enclosed in "quotation marks." Long quotations, called block quotations, are set apart from the main text by indention and/or printed in a smaller type size without quotation marks, preceded and followed by a blank line. A very long quotation is an excerpt. To avoid copyright infringement, quotations in a written work should be properly cited.

reference desk

When a person has a question about how to find specific information or how to use library services and resources, in person, by telephone, or via e-mail. A professionally trained reference librarian scheduled to work at the reference desk will provide an answer or refer the inquirer to a knowledgeable source.


Systematic investigation of a topic, or in a field of study, often employing hypothesis and experimentation, undertaken by a person intent on revealing new facts, theories, or principles, or determining the current state of knowledge of the subject. The results are usually reported in a primary journal, in conference proceedings, or in a monograph by the researcher(s) who conducted the study. In academic libraries, instruction is designed to teach research skills.

research guide

An online resource that provides detailed information, instructions, and advice concerning the best strategies, techniques, and resources for research in a subject or field of study. Also referred to as LibGuides or Library Guides.

research paper

A written composition assigned as an exercise in a formal course of study. The writer is expected to state a thesis and advance a logical argument based on supporting information found in a systematic investigation of the topic. The source of quotations, facts, and ideas not those of the author must be cited.


In academic libraries, materials given a shorter loan period (two-hour) for a limited period of time (usually one semester) at the request of the instructor, to ensure that all the students enrolled in a course have an opportunity to use them. 


A systematic effort on the part of a library user or librarian to locate desired information by manual or electronic means, whether successful or not, as opposed to browsing a library collection casually with no clear intention in mind. See also: mediated search, search statement, search strategy, and serendipity.

search engine

computer software designed to help the user locate information available at sites on the World Wide Web by selecting categories from a hierarchical directory of subjects (example: Yahoo!) or by entering appropriate keywords or phrases (Google, etc.). Most Web search engines allow the searcher to use Boolean logic and truncation in search statements. Results may be ranked according to relevance or some other criterion. Functionality varies, but many search engines provide both basic and advanced search modes.

search strategy

In information retrieval, a systematic plan for conducting a search. In most cases, the first step is to formulate a clear and concise topic statement. The next step is to identify the main concepts in the topic. Then the most appropriate finding tools for the subject must be identified and located. Lists of authorized subject heading(s) and descriptors in the appropriate indexing systems can then be consulted to find preferred terms to represent the main concepts.


A publication in any medium issued under the same title in a succession of discrete parts, usually numbered (or dated) and appearing at regular or irregular intervals with no predetermined conclusion.

subject heading

The most specific word or phrase that describes the subject, or one of the subjects, of a work, selected from a list of preferred terms (controlled vocabulary) and assigned as an added entry in the bibliographic record to serve as an access point in the library catalog.


The science of classification, including the general principles by which objects and phenomena are divided into classes, which are subdivided into subclasses, then into sub-subclasses, and so on. Taxonomies have traditionally been used in the life sciences to classify living organisms (see Tree of Life), but the term has been applied more recently within the information sector to the classification of resources available via the World Wide Web.


A version of a written work that has not been shortened and is therefore considered to be complete.


A company that provides access to online databases by subscription (examples: EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale), usually under licensing agreement.


From the Latin phrase verso folio, meaning "with the page turned." The back side of a book or the left-hand page of an opening in a book or other publication. Publisher's imprint, publication date, notice of copyright, ISBN, and CIP are usually given on the verso of the title page of a book.

vocabulary control

In indexing, the process of creating and maintaining a list of preferred terms to indicate (1) which of two or more equivalent terms will represent a concept as the authorized subject heading or descriptor in the classification system and (2) the relations of hierarchy (broader and narrower terms) and association (related terms) among headings once they have been selected. Controlled vocabulary is recorded in a subject headings list or thesaurus that is updated as new concepts emerge and older terminology becomes obsolete.


WorldCat is the online union catalog of materials cataloged by OCLC member libraries and institutions, a rapidly growing bibliographic database containing over 50 million records representing materials published since 1000 B.C. in over 400 languages in a variety of formats


Pronounced "zeen." The term came into use during the 1980s to refer to a small, low-circulation magazine or newspaper, self-published out of passion for the subject rather than for personal gain, usually produced with the aid of desktop publishing software and high-quality photocopy machines. Zines represent the convergence of amateur publishing hobbyists, high school underground newspapers, the literary small press, political radicalism, and do-it-yourself popular culture.

chat loading...