Skip to Main Content

Waidner-Spahr Library

Research Process: Subject Headings

Use this guide to as a basic guide to research. Information is included on how to use keywords and phrases, evaluate a source. This guide can also help you identify primary and secondary sources and expand or narrow your searches.

What is a Subject Heading?

A subject heading is a specific word or phrase used to find and organize books and articles by topic. Subject headings can be a great way to easily find things related directly to your topic.  Once you have identified a book or article that is worthwhile, look at the subject headings.  In the online catalog these are found in the "catalog record" and you can click directly on the subject heading to get a list of books on the same subject.

Subject headings are different from keywords in that they are specific terms assigned to a subject by an organization. For example, the Library of Congress supplies subject headings for books owned by Dickinson College (and other libraries), and the company that provides Web of Science supplies subject headings for the articles indexed in that database.

These subject headings, also known as subject descriptors, may not be what you would expect. You might, for instance, go to our catalog and search for autobiographies and Nobel Prize winner, but the Library of Congress uses the term Personal Narrative instead of autobiography.  If you fail to search using the term "personal narrative," you may miss some useful items.

Subject headings can often be found on the page of a book that provides the publisher's information, or at or near the bottom of the page of an online record of a book or article. The subject heading can be used to search for related books or articles when copied exactly as printed.

In the library catalog and many databases, an items's subject(s) will be a link, so that you can click on the subject heading to find similar items. You also might want to note the exact words to search them as a keyword later.

This is an example of a book in the library catalog with numerous subject headings:

Shakespeare on the Screen : Kenneth Branagh's Adaptations of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet / Tanja Weiss

PR3093 .W45 1999

Publication info: Frankfurt am Main ; New York : P. Lang, c1999.

Physical description: 210 p. : ill. ; 21 cm.

Series: (European university studies. Series XXX, Theatre, Film and television,ISSN0721-3662 ; vol. 75 = Europäische Hochschulschriften. Reihe XXX, Theater-, Film- und Fernsehwissenschaften ; Bd. 75) Bibliography note: Filmography: p. 195-197.

Bibliography note: Includes bibliographical references (p. 205-210).

Personal subject: Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 Film and video adaptations.

Personal subject: Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Much ado about nothing.

Personal subject: Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Henry V.

Personal subject: Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Hamlet.

Personal subject: Branagh, Kenneth.

Subject: English drama Film and video adaptations.

Series: Europäische Hochschulschriften. Reihe XXX, Theater-, Film- und Fernsehwissenschaften ; Bd. 75.

ISBN: 3631339275

Using Subject Headings

Subject headings are important because you can use them to find similar information more efficiently.  Since they are the way a database or catalog defines a topic, searching by subject can be a more precise way to find the information you are looking for.  Also in many search tools subject headings are displayed as links so you can click on them and get more books or articles on that specific topic.

For more help using subject headings, ask a librarian.