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Information Literacy, Level Two

Subject Terms

Think of students writing a book review for a class.  If we have a book about social media, most people will probably include social media in their description.  However, Peter uses the words "online social networks", and his classmate Mary discusses establishing a personal presence on the web.   Computers look for exact matches when processing data.  A computer searching through the class book reports for social media would not find either Peter's or Mary's book reviews because they did not use "social media" to describe the book.

Subject headings or controlled vocabulary are a way to ensure that everyone looking for information about  social media finds all the material available.  Database planners add a field to the item's description containing uniform, agreed-upon terms describing subject content.  So the teacher in our example above would enter all his student book reviews into the computer adding the Subject heading: "social media" to each book review for the book.  The teacher might also include book reviews that the same students had written on The Scarlet Letter and Harry Potter.  They would have the subject headings "Literature" and "Fantasy."   At the end of the semester, the teacher can use the Find function to find those reviews with the words "social media" in the document.  Some reviews would contain social media in the student description (abstract), some would not,  but all the relevant reviews would have the subject heading "social media" added by the teacher.

Note: Subject terms are consistent in the database you are in. They may vary database to database, so just be aware of this as you are using them in your research.

Using subject terms for books to find relevant material

As I suggested above vocabulary is important.  If you know or find a good book or article, look at the subject headings.  Is there a subject heading that describes what you want?  Click on it to find all the books or articles on your topic.  I am looking at material on the Civil War.   When I typed Civil War in the keyword box many titles were listed.  Based on the title I clicked on the following book to get a more complete description..  

The American Civil War : a military history

Front cover image for The American Civil War : a military history

by John Keegan 1934-2012.

Print Book
Publication year:
  • Analyzes many puzzling aspects of the Civil War, from its mismatched sides to the absence of decisive outcomes for dozens of skirmishes, and offers insight into the war's psychology, ideology, and economics while discussing the pivotal roles of leadership and geography.

On the same screen you will see the subject headings for the book below the description.

If I click on the subject heading

Dates within subject heading

I am a student looking for criticism of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Which of these subject headings would I use?  Hint: Louisa was born in 1832 and died in 1888.  Notice that the subject headings are divided into centuries, so while you cannot pick exact date you would pick the appropriate century.

Dates within subject heading
American Literature 19th Century History and Criticism: 199 votes (66.33%)
American Literature 18th Century History and Criticism: 61 votes (20.33%)
American Literature 17th Century History and Criticism: 40 votes (13.33%)
Total Votes: 300

Using subject terms in specialized databases to find relevant material

Subject headings are a great way to explore your topic more. Say you want to write a paper about special education for the disabled, but were not sure how to narrow down the topic.  If we look in the education database ERIC,  there is a thesaurus.  The thesaurus is a listing of subject term that the database producers assign to articles.  When I look up disabilities in the ERIC thesaurus I get the following entry: 


Physical, mental, or sensory impairments that render major life activities more difficult (Note: Use a more specific term if possible)


    Narrower Terms

     Attention Deficit Disorders+  
     Behavior Disorders+  
     Communication Disorders  
     Congenital Impairments+  
     Developmental Disabilities  
     Hearing Impairments+  
     Intellectual Disability+  
     Language Impairments+  
     Learning Disabilities  
     Mental Disorders+  
     Mild Disabilities+  
     Multiple Disabilities+  
     Perceptual Impairments  
     Physical Disabilities+  
     Severe Disabilities+  
     Special Health Problems  
     Speech Impairments+  
     Visual Impairments+
  Note that definition of the original term is given followed by narrower terms.  You may want to narrow you search to address only special education for the blind, for example.