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Subject headings

Any time you are looking for information on a particular subject, you will use tools that are arranged by subject, or that have indexes that include subjects.

Your library's catalog has a subject approach. The arrangement of books on the shelves of your library is by subject. Many of the reference books you use every day have a subject approach within the book itself. The compilers of indexes and library catalogs have to decide which headings they will use in that tool. These are the subject headings.

The best way to use these tools well is to determine what subject heading will be used for the topic you are looking for. Our language is so rich that there are often many ways to describe the same topic. Each tool will use the terms that make the most sense for that tool, and different reference books will use different terms for the same concepts. For example, some sources will use the heading "capital punishment," while others will use "death penalty."

In deciding which headings to use, indexers first try to keep related or similar items together. It would be very awkward to have some articles listed under "death penalty" and some under "capital punishment." It's important to pick one heading and use it consistently. However, some indexes may use one and some may use the other.

The Library of Congress publishes a list of subject headings that many libraries and information providers use to assign subjects to resources. Library of Congress, for example, uses Capital Punishment as the subject heading to describe this topic rather than Death Penalty. If you rely on the Library of Congress Subject Headings, you will have an excellent place to begin when you are not sure what heading to use, or are having trouble finding a subject in your catalog.

If you find one item that seems to match a patronís need, you can check the subject headings listed on the catalog record to see how to search for more information. The lists of subjects usually appears in the bibliographic information on the screen, and in a web-based catalog, you can simply click on the subject heading and a list of items with that subject heading attached will appear.

Go to Types of subject headings.

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This page was updated on October 25, 2003.