Using an index effectively

Specific terms, synonyms, and broader terms

To use any index effectively (including the card catalog), follow these steps:

1. Try looking up the most specific term first.
Example: Daylight Savings Time. Try " Daylight"

2. Then try a synonym.
Example: Whose picture is on a $20 bill? If there is no entry under "paper money", try "currency"

3. Then try to broaden the search term.
Example: If you are looking for the speed of a lion and find nothing under "lion", broaden to "animals"

Coping with poor indexes

Sometimes you will have to use an index that is very poorly constructed. One common problem with indexes is very broad subject headings with too many items under each subject heading. You face an inefficient search because you can't go directly to the most specific heading. Some indexes don't follow the usual conventions and will put items beginning with "the" in the T's. Indexes in some older books use outdated or misleading terms.

It's always frustrating to deal with these problems. You need to be thorough and persistent and to try as many approaches as you can. Sometimes it pays off to ignore the index altogether and rely on the table of contents and browsing for information. Persistence and creativity can help overcome problems with poor indexing.

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This page was updated on October 25, 2003.