3.6 Searching by Subject

Like web search engines, Quick Search allows you to use natural language searches such as:

What are the benefits of learning communities?

How to improve writing and study skills

Are irradiated foods safe?

While searches like these might work for finding full text articles in Quick Search, such searches are often less effective for finding books and other library materials. This is because Quick Search does not search the full text of print books and other physical materials (DVDs, etc.)

Natural language searches work best with items we have full text access to, such as websites, because they search the entire text looking for your terms. However, you cannot search the full text of books and other physical items (DVDs, journals, images, and so on) in Quick Search. The records for these types of materials include predefined subject headings to describe what the item is about. Because subject headings come from preset lists, your terms will need to precisely match an existing subject heading to get good results in a subject search. So how do you find subject headings?

Subject Searching Tips

To search by subject effectively in Advanced Search, strategic exploration will be your best next step!

Already know a subject heading?

If you already know a specific subject heading, just type it into Advanced Search and use the first drop-down menu to choose Subject. However, it’s more likely that you won’t know the exact subject headings to use in advance.

Don’t know the subject heading?

If you don’t know in advance whether your starting search terms are in the Subject field, start with a Simple (or Any field) search. Next, look through your search results. When you find an item that looks relevant, click that item’s linked title to open the full record, and scroll down to Details to find the subject headings. Do you see anything that describes your topic well? You can then click a relevant subject heading to search that specific subject and, in doing so, immediately focus your search results.

Subject searching in action

Say you’re interested in finding books on the topic of exploring Mars and the feasibility of sending people to Mars. Not knowing the exact subject to search, just do a simple search using some likely subject terms, such as mars exploration. Here’s one of the books you’ll find:


Subjects field

You found this item because your search terms (mars exploration) are found in the item record, and specifically as part of Mars (Planet) — Exploration in the subjects list. Both that and the Space colonies subject heading look relevant to what you want to know.

To find more books on your topic, just click the most relevant subject heading. If you will be doing repeated research on this topic, you’ll probably want to write down or remember these subject headings.

Check your understanding


LIB 160: Information Literacy Copyright © 2019 by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services. All Rights Reserved.

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