One key step in using catalogues is figuring out search terms.
What kinds of searches can you do?
In most electronic catalogues you can search by all sorts of things.
Many libraries have gone to the single search box (popularised by Google). Technically, this is called a keyword search, and it usually searches all the text in the record.
Pro: You don’t need to guess which field a given thing might be in, and searching on things that aren’t subject headings but show up in the title or blurb will still come up.
Con: You can get a lot of false results that don’t actually have what you want, especially if you’re searching for commonly used words.
If you end up with all sorts of results that don’t help you, two things can help. First, there’s probably an option somewhere on that first search screen that says something like ‘advanced search’. Second, once you do a search, you may be presented with some options to help you filter the results.
Depending on the catalog, you will usually see a variety of options that let you limit your search in different ways. Common ones include:
- Searching just the author, subject, or title fields.
- Searching a range of years.
- Limiting the results to a particular format, location (for systems with multiple locations), or sometimes specific collections (like juvenile books), or languages.
You may need to do a little digging in the help information (likely also linked from the search form) to understand your options in detail.
It’s sometimes (okay, often) a lot easier to start with a keyword search and then limit your results in different ways.
In my library’s catalog, I can limit by the following, to give you an example:
- Location (so I can find books in my local library)
- Availability (books I can get right now, either in a library or online)
- Whether the search term is found in the title or subject
- Format (book, ebook, audiobook, etc.)
- What collections it is in (this distinguishes library and children or adult)
- Places the book takes place
And then it shows me related searches, including established subject terms, and some additional suggestions.
Understanding subject headings
In practical terms, you are probably not going to do what librarians do to learn about subject headings.
(For the curious, this involves most library schools require a class in cataloging that includes a lot of the specifics. Then you go out into the world and spend a lot of time starting at instructions and hoping you’re doing it right, punctuated by asking other people if you are.)
Individual libraries also have their own policies – the library I work at has set up a list of keywords instead of official subject headings, because a lot of our needs aren’t represented in them (or are using terms that aren’t a great fit for us – they’re dated, they draw from specialities that aren’t the terms the people who use us will use, or both!)
As a library catalog user, my best tip is for you to look for hints about what kinds of terms will work. Fortunately, these are pretty straightforward
1) Try searches
One of the best tips for getting your bearings in a new catalogue (by which I mean one that’s new to you) is to try some searches of items you’re pretty sure are in there, and that are reasonably similar for other items you want to look for.
Ideally, these will be the same subject (generally speaking) as the items you want, but if you’re not sure about that, at least try for the same topic area – if you want to do searches about religious information, try other religious titles or topics. If you’re looking for history, try other historical things. And so on.
The goal here is to do a few searches and see what comes up and how the search terms work.
2) Linked subjects
In many library catalogs, you have the option to click on the subject headings to find other items with that subject heading. This can be tremendously helpful once you find one book that’s what you want. (Of course, it’s finding that first thing that can be tricky!)
You may want to add several books to a wish list or cart (whatever the catalog uses) or bookmark them before you go too far astray in your searches, so you can get back to your starting point again easily.
If you’re having trouble with searches, try simpler ones – for example, if you’re trying to search an entire title, try
3) Look for known books or topics that should be in the collection.
For example, for modern Pagan materials, I often suggest people try Scott Cunningham’s Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner, or Starhawk’s Spiral Dance. Both are commonly held by most moderate to large library systems, and they’ll give you a starting place for what terms are being used.
In my local library system, Cunningham’s book comes up with the subject headings “witchcraft”, “magic”, and “ritual”.
That’s a hint that I probably want to check ‘witchcraft’ as well as ‘Wicca’ as subject headings.
(This is because older books were cataloged before Wicca became an official Library of Congress subject heading around 2006 or 2007 – libraries don’t generally go back and recatalog subject headings unless there’s a very significant reason to, because it’s a big cost of staff time.
Something like ‘witchcraft’ and ‘Wicca’ where it can be tricky to figure out exactly which heading applies to some books, and where ‘witchcraft’ is still accurate, if a bit more general ideal, is less likely to get edited than, say, a library that is fixing or updating subject headings to reflect current understanding of gender identity or sexual orientation or legal issues.)
4) Check the ‘about’ for information or ask a librarian.
Still stuck? Check the library’s help information or ask a librarian for help – you can ask general questions, and they can help you navigate.
If you don’t want to (or can’t get to) the physical library easily, most libraries have an option for email or chat help these days, at least some of the time.