Tips and Tricks for Finding Information in the MSDN Library (Mary Lee)

When you have a question about how an API works, most of you will look in the MSDN Library.  There are some tips and tricks to finding what you need in this vast resource.  First of all, there are two main ways you can read the content in the MSDN Library.

  • The offline version that you can install on your development computer. 
  • The online version that you can access via your Web browser.

You can also use the MTPS Web service at http://services.msdn.microsoft.com/ContentServices/ContentService.asmx to access MSDN and TechNet content.  For two examples on how to use this Web service, see How to: Bind to a Web Service and Walkthrough: Binding to Data from a Service in an Application-Level Project.

The offline and online versions have their benefits and disadvantages. The offline version has various filters that you can use to limit your search to a certain language. For example, you can limit your search criteria by language (Visual Basic, Visual C++, or Visual C#) or development focus (Office Development or Smart Device Development). The online version is updated on a regular basis, but you don’t have to use gigabytes of hard drive space for documentation about technologies or languages that you don’t use.

Search engines tend to return results for the most frequently visited topics in the MSDN Library. Unfortunately, this means that the oldest topics are returned first.  If multiple versions of a topic exists, you can find the disambiguator in the upper right hand corner of the topic. This will point you to the Visual Studio 2008 version of the topic.

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You can use the bread crumbs at the top of the topic to change the version of the topic and navigate the table of contents. 

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The MSDN Library content does get updated in response to customer feedback and sometimes completely rewritten for the latest version, so use the disambiguator box or bread crumbs to ensure that you’re reading the most recent version of a topic.

You can change the locale information (en-us) in the URL to view the translated version of the topic. Replacing (en-us) with (fr-fr) shows the French version of the topic: http://msdn.microsoft.com/fr-fr/library/we86c8x2.aspx. To view the low bandwidth version of the topic, add (loband) to the URL: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/we86c8x2(loband).aspx

You can use the MSDN Search refinements to narrow down the search results.

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If you want to use a search engine, you can use the site keyword in your search box to apply filters. For example, I can type "site:msdn.microsoft.com vstoinstaller" in the search box to limit my search to the MSDN Library.

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Then, a search returns the right topics in the first two search results.

To avoid searching the MSDN forums, you can add "-social" to the search box.

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If you have more tips and tricks for finding the right content in the MSDN Library, feel free to follow up with a comment.

Mary Lee, Programming Writer.