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Introduction to library research in the arts: Subject searching

An introduction to research concepts and techniques for University of Redlands students in fine, literary and performing arts, developed as an Open Educational Resource (OER)

Learning objective

  • Find relevant results through subject searching.

What are subject headings?

Screen shot of a list of subject headings assigned to an article on restorative justice

Subject headings are a feature of library research tools intended to help you find information even if you don't know the right keywords to use.

Subject headings are an authorized list of concepts that an item can be "about". Experts analyze the content of a document (such as a book or journal article) and choose one or more subject headings that best reflect the content.

Subject headings behave very similarly to hashtags in social media. They show up in library search tools as links. You can click on them to execute a search for only items that received that subject heading.

There are two main ways of finding subject headings on your topic:

  1. Find an item you know to be relevant and see what subject headings were assigned to that article.
  2. Use the Thesaurus feature if it is available. The Thesaurus is a list of all the possible subject headings applied to items in that database. A good thesaurus will include a short definition of the heading and a list of other headings that are related in some way.

Thesaurus entry for the subject term "Restorative school discipline". The term is defined and related terms are listed.

Using the Thesaurus

Example of searching a Thesaurus for restorative justice. That term was not found, but a "used for" subject heading for restorative discipline in schools was recommended instead.

In this example, searching the Education Research Complete thesaurus for "restorative justice" showed that term is not used in the database. The subject heading "restorative school discipline" is used instead.

Advanced searching with subject terms

The fastest way to find relevant results in library databases is often:

  1. Find one or more relevant subject headings on key concepts from your topic
  2. Use an advanced search to combine the subject heading with some keywords representing other concepts you need.

For example, in our case study for restorative justice in California high schools, once we have identified "restorative school discipline" as a subject heading for the concept of restorative justice, we can combine that subject with keywords covering California and high schools.

Screenshot of an advanced search screen showing a subject search for "restorative school discipline" AND a keyword search for "California" AND a keyword search for "high schools."

Note how this advanced search uses the Boolean operator AND to limit the result set to only items matching all of these criteria.

Key points

  • Subject headings are lists of authorized terms that an item can be "about".
  • You can discover subject headings on your topic by searching a database's thesaurus, or by clicking on the subject terms in a relevant result.
  • Use a combination of subject and keyword searching to quickly find relevant results.