Librarians love organizing things.  A lot. One product of this love is subject headings.  In more technical terms, these are standardized words assigned to a concept.

Using subject headings is a more advanced way to research as they help to reduce the amount of “garbage,” or irrelevant results, that come up.  This is because subject headings are assigned to an article or a book by a person, rather than a computer.  Subject headings are also assigned based on the topic of the article, rather than just the words that appear in the text.

For example, let’s say I was doing a project on teaching methods.  There are many words I can type into the library catalogue or online databases that would bring up words on this topic: teaching, teaching methods, teachers, instruction, instruction methods, education , education methods, educate, educating, educators…

Who knows which word in the list above is the “best” word, that will bring up the most relevant articles to my topic? A function of subject headings is to take this guess work out of researching.  Rather than typing out ALL those variations on teaching methods, I can use a subject heading that would cover all of these concepts.

Some online databases, therefore, have a list of standardized words that you can use to search instead of using keywords. This list includes definitions, too, so you know which word is the best one. Using our example from above, even if an article never says the word “instruction” in the text but has been assigned the subject heading “instruction”, then it will appear when you conduct a search using this subject heading.

Subject headings must be looked up first, though, before you start researching.  (See “How do I look up subject headings” for more information on how to do this.)  This process takes some practice, but it’s worth the effort!

If you’d like to try using subject headings on your own, a good place to start is in Western’s Shared Library Catalogue.  Most university libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings, and Western is no different.  Each item (i.e. each book) is assigned subject headings by Western’s cataloguers, and you can find these if you scroll to the bottom of any record in the catalogue.  Know that this will only work in the catalogue and not in Summon, which works like Google rather than traditional databases.

subject headings
An example of the subject headings assigned to John Green’s 2017 novel Turtles All the Way Down.

For more information (for our science students) you can also see the Western Libraries video tutorial on using subject headings.

Note: this post was originally written by Heather Campbell. It was updated on January 17, 2018 by Katie Holmes.