Skip to Main Content

Where do I start?

Using Call Numbers to find print books

Call numbers are how you find materials in our physical collections.

For physical items, the library catalog will include some basic location details (e.g. "Smith College Neilson Stacks "), the call number, and the item's status, which indicates whether the item has been checked out. 


Screenshot of catalog record for The Book of Night Women including the location, call number, and status.

How call numbers work

All print or paper copies of books in the library are assigned a call number, usually found on the book spine.

The call number represents what the book is about and acts like the book's address on the library's shelves, which, when shelves are gathered together, are called stacks. Because books on the shelves are arranged in call number order, you will find books on similar subjects shelved near each other.

At Smith Libraries, we use the Library of Congress (LC) classification system. LC call numbers are made up of letters and numbers and look something like this:

 Close-up of the call number PR9265.9.J358 B66
PR 9265.9.J358 B66 2009
Read the call number from left to right. The first part of the call number PR 9265.9 consists of a combination of one or two letters and a number that indicates a specific subject area known as an LC (Library of Congress) subject class.

The next part, .J358 B66, places the individual item in alphabetical order within its LC subject class (usually by the first letter of an author's last name, though it may sometimes also represent some other information about a work such as a further subject subdivision).

The final part of the call number, 2009, is the year the book was published.


Finding your book once you have the call number

Image with arrow of the "Locate it" button for the Book of Night Women

 Once you have a call number for your book (or other item), you can use the "Locate it" button under the call number to see a map of the area of the library where you can find the book. In the above example, this book is on the ground floor of Neilson Library in the stacks.


"Locate it" map for The Book of Night Women


Steps for using the call number to find a book on the shelf

  1. Start with finding the first letters of your call number. For the example above, call numbers starting with P are on both the first and ground floors of Neilson Library
  2. Call numbers beginning with a single letter come before call numbers with a second letter, e.g.: P before PA, then PB, PC, and so on until PR
  3. Once you are in the correct letter area (in this example, PR is on the ground floor in the stacks), the books are in number order, e.g.: PR 9265 comes after PR 90 and before PR 9500
  4. The next part of the call number is read like decimals, e.g.: PR 9265.9.J358 comes before PR 9265 J6
  5. Many books also include the year of publication. In this example it is 2009. This will help you find the right edition, if there is more than one.