A crash course in browsing the library online

Struggling to find resources while studying from home? This helpful guide will show you how to browse the library in lockdown.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us all to dramatically change the way we interact with the world. Unfortunately, in order to ensure the safety of our staff and users, it forced us to close all three of our campus libraries. But we know you’re still working just as hard as ever to study from home and we’re also working hard to ensure you still get the resources you need to do so. So far we’ve provided free access to hundreds of extra online textbooks, including many essential readings; our acquisitions and interlibrary loans teams have been working flat out responding to countless individual requests for eBooks and online journals; we’ve extended all loans and suspended all charges; our subject librarians have continued to offer specialist support through video chat; and our frontline team has been providing you with live chat, email, and telephone support from home.

Try as we might though, we know that nothing really compares to visiting the library in person. For some it’s a quiet and comfortable place to sit at a desk and study, for others it’s somewhere to access quality academic support, and for many it’s a place to do your printing or borrow a laptop. But we know that so many of you love visiting the library just to browse the shelves too. Sometimes you just don’t know exactly what you need (or, indeed, what you’re missing) to complete your research until you’re wandering around the shelves and you stumble upon something, right?

Well we have a few tips that can help you learn how to browse virtually, from the safety and comfort of your own home.

Start by planning your search

The best way to start any online search is by keeping it simple. Suppose your essay question asked the following:

Discuss the influence of the media on political election results

First, pick out the keywords & phrases in your question, which in this case are ‘influence’, ‘media’, and ‘political election results’.

Then think of some synonyms for each of these. For ‘influence’ you might have ‘impact’; for ‘media’ you might list ‘television’, ‘social media’, and ‘internet’; and for ‘political election results’ you may think of ‘polls’ or ‘outcomes’.

Perform a basic search

Once you have your keywords and some synonyms, you’ll be ready to visit the library website and search the catalogue. Now, you’re probably going to want to start with a broad search, so stick with the Search Library tab on the website for now.

Try typing in your key words and seeing what comes up. Try also alternating your keywords and your synonyms to produce a broader range of results. This will give you a really solid idea of the kinds of resources available to you and allow you to browse items that cover different areas of your search topic.

This should produce a lot of hits, but remember, depending on wether you’re just browsing casually or looking for something easily and instantly accessible through the library, you may want to want to narrow the results down so that you only see items with online accessibility. Use the tick boxes in the menu on the left-hand side of the page to get started.

I’ve found something I like, but I still want to see more

Hopefully, in the course of your search, you’ll have found something you really like the look of. But, naturally, you may wish to see some more similar items. Well there are a few smart tricks you can use to easily help you do just that.

Search the ‘Recently Added’ items:

When you click on a library record, you’ll be presented with some more detailed information about that particular item.

On the right-hand side, you’ll see the Recently Added list. This section uses keywords to find similar items that have been most recently added to the library catalogue.

SEARCH similar subjects:

Your item record features a number of sections, including one named Details. It’s here that you’ll find information about when and where the book was published, or how many pages it has.

It’s also where you can see what subject area the item has been tagged with. Click on one of these and you’ll be redirected to the search page where you’ll be able to see all the items that are tagged under this subject area.

See the virtual bookshelf:

One of the best browsing features in our catalogue is our virtual bookshelf. Just click on the classmark and the virtual shelf will pop up, displaying all the other books that usually reside either side of the selected item on the shelves.

Know your classmarks:

We organise our books according to the Library of Congress system (invented by, you guessed it, the Library of Congress), which means books within similar topics and sub-topics are shelved together.

So when you find a book you like, it’s always good to note the classmark and search for other items in that range. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use the Classic Catalogue, an older version of our current online system.

Visit the Classic Catalogue from any page by scrolling to the bottom and clicking the link. From there, you can search books by a range of criteria, including by classmark.

Top tip: you can expand your search from here by simply removing any characters after the last decimal place (if there are any). For example, if your original classmark is JK 274.M2 you can search JK 274 in the Classic Catalogue and see all the subsections within that classmark. See how this looks below:

Still can’t find what you need? Perform an advanced search

Maybe you haven’t found as many search results as you’d like? Or perhaps your search returned too many results? Performing an advanced search can help with both of these problems.

Using Boolean operators:

Combine keywords with connecting words like OR, AND, or NOT. If you search for Fish AND Chips you’ll only get results that include both keywords. Similarly, if you search Soccer OR Football your results will show everything that includes either of these words.

Phrase searching:

Place phrases inside speech marks in order to tie them together. For example, if you search for Big Cats your results will include all items that match the keyword Cats, so you may see readings on domesticated pets mixed in with your studies of lions. Instead search “Big Cats” as a phrase and find more accurate results.

Try wildcards:

Suppose your search topic included the word Women. You’ll probably also wants to see results that include the word Woman too, right? Just replace the letter that changes with an ? and it’ll search both words. So, instead of searching Women, try Wom?n. Give it a go – it really works!  


Using truncation can help you expand your searches. So instead of searching Politics, try typing Politic* and you’ll get results that includesimilar words, like Politician and Political, as well as Politics.

Use the advanced search form:

Advanced searching is easy with our catalogue. No need to learn the ins and outs of Boolean operators or truncation of the top of your head (thought I’m sure you’d find it useful if you did) – our search form can do it all for you.

Search far and wide

Sometimes, if you’re in the early phases of your research and just want to browse around a topic, searching other sites away from the library’s catalogue can be really useful.

One great place to start is Google Scholar. Use the search techniques above to narrow or widen your search and you should be able to find a huge range of results – as you can see from the picture below, it’s really quick and easy!

Quick access to the resources you need

Maybe you’ve found something on an external site like Google Scholar that would be perfect for you. You’d then have to go the right library website and search for it there to see if we have access, right?

Well, actually, no.

The UniEssex Log In button is an extension you can download and add to your browser. When you see something you want to read online, just click the button and if we have access, it’ll verify you in just a few seconds – how smart is that?!

Don’t worry if it turns out the resource you want isn’t accessible via the library, all is not lost. Visit our Request a Resource page, fill out the short form, and we’ll try to source it for you.

So now you’re a browsing master

Hopefully, if you’ve made it this far you’re now feeling confident to go and browse your heart out.

But remember, if you still need help locating resources, you can speak to a member of library staff via live chat on our Homepage, by email at libline@essex.ac.uk, or by booking an appointment with your subject librarian – we’re happy to help.

Why not also check out our guides on search skills, look at your subject guide, or watch some of our instructional videos on YouTube?

Happy hunting!

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