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Research Skills Guides: Guide to key terms

Overview of key terms

This is a list of key terms used in Senate House Library's Research Support Programme. It is intended as a guide to library and archival terminology to support attendees' understanding of some of the language used as part of the programme. If you have any further questions about the Library, visit our Using the Library page or have a look at our Library FAQs.

Find out more about Senate House Libary's Research Support resources and programme on our website.


The short description of a book, article or other academic work which summarises the full content. Useful for determining whether a work will be relevant to your own research.


The name given to the Senate House Library's archival catalogue.


Autograph letter, signed: i.e. a handwritten and signed letter. The abbreviation is found in catalogue records.

Archival catalogue

A dedicated discovery tool for archives and manuscripts. Archival catalogues typically show families of papers in their relationships, or hierarchies, from an entire collection down to a single file or item. Go to Senate House Library's archive catalogue.


Groups of manuscripts, typescripts or other non-published material, usually unique, emanating from a single person or organisation. Correspondence is often a major element, especially in personal archives. Go to Senate House Library's archives webpage.


Three-dimensional works such as seals, busts or type specimens. These are held with the archives and found in the archive catalogue.


A bookcase within the library.

Bay shelving


Items marked as "Billed" have been on loan for longer than the time they should have been borrowed. If you would like to request a replacement copy contact the relevant subject librarian.

Card catalogue

A catalogue consisting of 3 by 5-inch cards, normally with one title per card, arranged alphabetically by author. This is a standard way to look up books which have not been catalogued electronically. SHL's card catalogue has been digitised. Go to Senate House Library's online card catalogue.


A list of resources held, often with notes giving details. SHL's main catalogues are its discovery system Encore, the Classic Catalogue (printed materials) and Adlib (the archival catalogue) but there is also a digitised card catalogue and, for a couple of special collections, typescript lists.

Classic catalogue

On-line Public Access Catalogue, i.e. any electronic catalogue. Go to Senate House Library's Classic Catalogue.


A code for an individual book indicating where it can be found on a shelf, usually based on a classification scheme. Classmarks for books can be found at the bottom of their catalogue entry.


An online collection of information sources, sometimes on specific themes or hosting similar material types. Go to Senate House Library's list of databases and e-resources.


Books with a due date are on loan, to be returned on the stated date. You can use the "Request It" button to reserve the book for yourself as soon as it is returned.

Electronic resources

Also called e-resources. A collective term to describe all the digital and electronic resources that can be accessed through Senate House Library. Go to Senate House Library's list of databases and e-resources.


Senate House Library's 'discovery' system. A function enabling combined searching of the library's print holdings and the electronic resources subscribed to. Go to Encore.


Items produced but not intended to last for a sustained period. Examples include: concert tickets, postcards, flyers, printed envelopes, paper scraps.


This usually refers to the form in which material is presented: printed book, pamphlet, electronic, microform, manuscript. For early printed books it refers to the way the book was set (folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo or smaller) and tends to equate roughly in practice with size. 

Full text

A complete article or book available for reading online (and sometimes for downloading). Can be either HTML or PDF format.

In preparation

Refers to a recently acquired item which is not yet available for use. Use the "Request it" button to reserve the item for as soon as it is available.


A way to view data, e.g. the Classic Catalogue and Encore provide different interfaces to view the same records.


This means that a reader has lost a book and indicates that the replacement charge the book has been paid. The Library will then attempt to attain a new copy of the invoiced book.


Technically, material which is written by hand. The term is often used loosely to include any written material which is not mass-produced, such as typescripts. Manuscripts are found in the archive catalogue. They differ from archives in that a manuscript is a single document, whereas archives are families of related documents, often comprising groups of manuscripts.


Information about a resource (such as author, title, publisher, subjects) that makes up the record for a resource on the catalogue and enables searching for and finding resources.

On holdshelf

The book is currently on hold for another reader. Books on the holdshelf are held for a week. If the book is collected, you will usually have to wait 4 weeks until the book is available again. If it isn't collected within a week, it will be passed to the next reader who has requested it.


On-line Public Access Catalogue, i.e. any electronic catalogue.

Open access

This has two meanings. 1. In the physical Library material that is stored in public areas and can be accessed by readers themselves, as opposed to material in the stack. 2. Academic material and research published online and made freely available without costs, subscriptions or other barriers. A list of online open access material can be found on Senate House Library's A-Z Databases list.


A short published work, usually ranging from one single leaf to a limited number of pages typically in the form of one single book section. Historically often of a political nature, but can include content of any kind.

Primary source

A first-hand account which can take many forms. For example, a novel written by an author; a manuscript; a personal diary; a photograph taken of an event; a political pamphlet written by an activist.


A single row of bookcases in a library.

Ready for pickup

If an item is marked with this phrase, it is available for you to collect and you should have received an automated email. It will be held for a week.


This has two meanings. 1. A description for a single resource or a group of resources consisting of information about it. 2. In an archival content, a record is a document which records an event or occurrence of some kind.

Reference only

These books cannot be borrowed and can only be used within the library.

Secondary source

A second-hand account, often created later than the event it describes. For example, an academic book written by a scholar on a particular topic.

Special collections

Material treated differently from the main research collections for reasons of rarity, value, or being held within a body of material given by a specific person or organisation and required to be kept together (named special collection). Special collections comprise above all books, pamphlets and maps printed before 1831, books rendered unique for copy-specific reasons, such as provenance or bindings, named special collections, and archives. Go to Senate House Library's Special Collections page.


Book storage space not directly accessible to readers. Items here will be marked with the phrase "STACK SERVICE". Order such books via the catalogue with the "Request It" button or at the circulation desk. These items should be available on the day you request them. If the item is marked with the phrase "STACK SERVICE [Offsite Store]", the book has to be requested from our off-site storage facilities. These items will be available within 48 hours.

Subject heading

A word or group of words summarising the subject of a book. This are usually linked in the catalogue towards the bottom of an item's record so subject terms can be browsed and searched (see picture). They are based on controlled vocabularies such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings.


A form of a manuscript or printed item which reproduces its original content in a new form, such as a digital version, microform, printed facsimile, or photocopy.  


Typescript letter, signed: i.e. a typed letter which has been signed. The abbreviation is found in catalogue records.

Union catalogue

A catalogue of several libraries, e.g. Library Hub Discover, which is a combined catalogue for numerous research and national libraries in the UK.