Module 4: Subject and Terms

Successful search strategies require a knowledge of subject terms.

Subject Headings or Categories

When working with library resources, you will use tools that are arranged by subject, have indexes which include subjects, or use specific subject heading schemes (such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings).

Your library’s catalog is organized with a subject-based approach. The books on the shelves are classified and cataloged by subject. Indexes for magazine articles, reference books, and some web directory sites are organized by specific categories, which are the subject headings.

Working with Subject Headings

The best way to use these tools is to determine what subject heading will be used for the topic of your question. However, our language is so complex that there are often many ways to describe the same topic. Each tool or Web directory site will use the terms that make the most sense for the area covered. Each source may use different terms for the same concepts.

For example, some sources will use the heading “capital punishment,” while others will use “death penalty.” Web search engines generally do not use subject access. Searches find any site with the keywords you enter whether or not those are relevant to your topic.

LCSH and Sears

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and the Sears List of Subject Headings (used with Dewey Decimal) are two standardization tools that are available in many library Reference areas. The terms in these tools are used when adding item records to the catalog. For that reason, these sources are a logical place to begin when you are not sure what heading to use, or are having trouble finding a subject in your catalog.

If you do not have these tools available, one strategy that often works is to check the “tracings” on the bottom of a catalog record for another book on the subject. “Tracings” are the lists of headings used for a book, and sometimes they may only appear as part of the full catalog record. You will have to check to see how your catalog handles “tracings,” as most automated catalogs work differently.

Try a Synonym

There is no single, standard list of subjects used for all reference tools, and good cross referencing is rare. Many professions, industries, and disciplines have their own subject heading lists (e.g. Medical Subject Headings, MeSH). Try to think of as many different terms for the same concept as you can, and try them all. Broaden the subject if you have trouble.

For example, you might find mention of a particular cowboy artist under his/her name, cowboy artists, cowboy art, or western art.

Web Searches

A narrow approach is often necessary in working with such overwhelming numbers of sites. Most libraries have web subject guides available to their staff and some even maintain subject guides on their websites to help patrons find authoritative information. It is also important to know which search engines to use and how they work (which will be discussed later in this module).

Keep track of all the terms you used in your search, and pass that list on if you refer the question.

Major Point: Successful search strategies require knowledge of subject terms used in library catalogs and resources and knowledge of how search engines work.


  1. Use your online catalog to see how many subject headings there are for Ohio. Example: Ohio–Encyclopedias or Almanacs–Ohio. One way to find reference materials for Ohio is to use the term Ohio with other terms such as atlas, bibliography, dictionary, directory, gazetteer, handbook, periodical, index, or yearbook as keywords to find specific Ohio resources.
  1. Want to find out where all those mysterious subject headings come from? Look for Ohio subject headings in a copy of the Sears List of Subject Headings, if your library is arranged by Dewey, or the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Catalogers assign the subject headings to the catalog records and understanding more about the headings will help your reference work. If you really want to know, talk to a cataloger — a perfect example of an expert!