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Last Modified: August 28, 2023
Feature Image for “Level Up Your Library Skills”: A stock image of two people looking at a computer screen. “Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach" is written in white text on a light green background below the image.
Level Up Your Library Skills

by Jessie Bach

I’d hazard a guess that as a reader of the Read Alberta website, you know your way around a library catalogue pretty well. You’re probably already a pro at searching for titles, placing holds, and using e-resources. That said, your online library account is home to an in-depth suite of features—that even seasoned library veterans may not be aware of—that can help you improve the efficiency and accuracy of your research. In this post, I’ll provide six ways you can level up your library skills and make sure that you can find the items you want and receive them when you want them.

I’ll provide instructions for some of these tools using examples from the TRACpac (the library catalogue for patrons of the Marigold, Peace, Northern Lights, and Yellowhead library systems) and Calgary Public Library (CPL) catalogues. If you aren’t a member of a library in one of these systems, you can still rest assured that the feature is likely available in your area too! Contact your local library if you need help finding or using any of these functions.

  1. Browse for Books by Subject

Most searches performed in the library catalogue are “known item” searches, meaning that you know the title of the item you are looking for and can plug that right into the search bar for an easy result. If you are performing research on a specific topic, however, you may not yet have a particular book or resource in mind and will need to search by topics, themes, or subjects. The quick and dirty way to do this is with a simple keyword search, however, that may bring up thousands of items—many of which may be only vaguely related to what you really need to find. To narrow your results, I recommend searching or browsing by subject. Here’s an example of how to search by subject in the CPL catalogue. In the search bar, use the “Search By” drop-down menu to change from the default keyword search to a “Subject” search:

A screenshot of the and Calgary Public Library (CPL) online catalogue. An arrow is pointing at “Subject” in the “Search By” drop-down menu and “siksika” is typed in the search bar.

You can see that this search returned 320 results with the subject of “Siksika.” When you click on one of the results to view the full record, you will see there is a list of all the subjects that have been assigned to the item by a librarian. To delve further into your research, you can click on any one of the linked subjects to view more materials on the same topic:

A screenshot of the listing for “Blackfott Ways of Knowing” by Betty Bastien. The listing displays the book cover, formats available, book description, author bio, and subjects and genre infomration. A clipart box and arrow has been added around the “subjects and genre” section to highlight where to find it (underneath the About the Author section, near the bottom of the page).

One word of warning—once you begin clicking subjects and exploring materials it may be hard to stop! Before you know it it’s three in the morning and you are done down a Wikipedia-style rabbit hole of fascinating information.

  1. Use Advanced Search Options

Take your search to the next level by using the advanced search features available in the library catalogue. Advanced search features allow you to go above and beyond a simple keyword or subject search, to specify (or exclude) multiple search terms, date of publication, language, reading level, special collection, format, and more. This is especially helpful if your initial searches return either too many or irrelevant results. The button to access advanced search features in most catalogues is often hidden in plain sight. At CPL, for example, you can find it in tiny text right below the keyword search box:

A screenshot of the CPL catalogue search bar. An arrow is pointing at the “Advanced Search Button,” below the search bar.

While in TRACpac, you can find it in the “Search” drop-down menu on the home screen:

A screenshot of the TRACpac home page. The search drop menu is open, and “Advanced” is selected. A red emphasis box has been added around the menu for emphasis.

When you click through to the Advanced Search page, you will be greeted with a number of fields that you can fill in based on your requirements. If you are already a pro-level searcher, CPL even provides a search box to perform a custom Boolean query. Below is an example advanced search for books in English about “Siksika,” published between 2015 and 2020, excluding children’s books, and available at the Central Library branch.

A screenshot of the advanced search page on the CPL catalogue. The search is for books in English about “Siksika,” published between 2015 and 2020, excluding children’s books, and available at the Central Library branch.

  1. Create a Wishlist

If your above searches were especially successful, you may have reached the maximum number of holds allowed by your library. Or maybe you just want to remember some titles to come back to and browse through later. For situations like these, most library catalogues provide the option to create a wishlist of items. In TRACpac, this feature is called “My List.”

A screenshot of the listing for “King Warrior” by Jay Bulckaert. On the right side of the listing, an arrow points at the button “Add to My List."

Adding a title to your list is as easy as clicking the button shown in the screenshot above. This catalogue even allows you to create and label multiple lists to help keep all your selections organized.

  1. Schedule your Holds

Many of us have been there—you’re browsing the catalogue and you find so much great stuff to read, watch, and listen to at your local library that you place all your requests on hold. A few days later, you receive a giant stack of items that will be impossible to get through during the loan period and end up returning most of them to the library unread. Luckily, your online library account offers options that let you manage the timing of your holds. When you log on to check the status of your requests, you will find the option to suspend or reactivate your holds. When you suspend a hold, the library’s system will skip filling your request while at the same time keeping your place in line. As soon as you’re ready to receive the title, you can reactivate the hold and if you’re at the top of the queue, it will be sent out to you right away. Using the suspend and reactivate features, you can place holds to your heart’s content and then make sure they arrive at a readable pace.

A screenshot from an online library account in TRACpac.

Above is a screenshot from an online library account in TRACpac. You can see that there are two active holds that will be sent as soon as a copy is available. The inactive holds have been paused and will become active on October 1st. If the patron is ready for them sooner, they can reactivate the suspended holds at any time and slip right back into line.

  1. Request a Title You Can’t Find in the Catalogue

If that specific title you’re looking for isn’t listed in the library catalogue, you aren’t out of luck. Most Alberta libraries will have the option to recommend a title for purchase. At CPL, when your search brings up zero results, you will be shown a link to the “suggest this title for purchase” page where you can fill out a form with the author and title. Often, and as long as the item is suitable for the library collection, it will be acquired by the library and a hold on the item placed on your account so that you will be first in line to read the new book.

 A screenshot of the CPL catalogue, which brings up zero results for the search: “King Warrior Jay Bulckaert”. An arrow is pointing at the button, “Suggest this title for purchase.”

  1. Talk to Library Staff

It’s 2023, and so much of our day-to-day life takes place online. This is especially true of using the library—just see the previous five tips and tricks. Many of us (and despite my profession, I’m including myself here!) are about as likely to go to the library and talk to a real person as we are to answer a call from an unknown number! While the virtual library space is full of useful tools and resources, there are also hundreds of beautiful public library spaces throughout the province staffed with trained professionals ready to help you. Their main goal is to make sure you get the information you need, and they’ll be delighted to show you how to use the library’s many tools, services, and programs.

These are just a few of the research and reading tools available to you at your local library. As you start to level up your library skills and become even more familiar with the library catalogue and your online account, you’ll discover even more features and functionality that will up your library game.

Happy searching!

About the Author:

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this article

Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta and is a lifelong library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Communications & Engagement Manager at Marigold Library System. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, three cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.

Feature image credit: Antoni Shkraba, through Pexels.