Finding subjects in an online library catalog

There are two difficulties with subject headings in a library catalog. For one thing, you must know what the subject heading is before you can search on it. For another, not all libraries use the same subject list. At first, it seems worse than the old complaint that you can’t look up how to spell a word in the dictionary unless you know how to spell it.

In the days of card catalogs, patrons had little choice but to make their best guess and hope to find something. College and university libraries, which overwhelmingly use Library of Congress Subject Headings, used to keep the whole list–all four or five volumes of the so-called “Red Books”–out where patrons could use them.

I used them from time to time and never had to stand in line. In fact, most patrons probably did not use them or even know what they were for. The nice thing was that I could make my guess, look in the “Red Books,” and if I was wrong, would very likely find a cross-reference. Unfortunately, the abbreviations for the various kinds of cross-references were devised by librarians for other librarians. They were hard for non-librarians to understand  or interpret.

Subject searching is actually better in an online library catalog. All those confusing cross-references in the “Red Books” work  invisibly under the hood. When a patron needs them, they appear written in intelligible English. But there is a better way to approach subject searching than just guessing at what a real heading might be.

First, though, some background is necessary. Most academic libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). Most public libraries use Sears List of Subject Headings. Most medical libraries use Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). The Library of Congress issues a separate list of headings for children.

All of these classification systems operate on the same basic principles: For every subject, there is one and only one term used to describe it in the catalog (controlled vocabulary). Terms exist in some kind of hierarchy from the most general to the most specific; the cataloging record for each title will have only the most specific headings. The cross references to a given subject heading may show broader or narrower terms, but there is no way to trace an entire hierarchy.

Although they operate on the same principles, the different systems do not use the same terms. What is the preferred term in one will be invalid in another. For example, “cancer” is a subject heading in both Sears and LCSH, but not in MeSH; the valid heading there is “neoplasms.” If, for example, a university includes a medical school, and if the medical library and other libraries share a single catalog, that catalog must have separate indexes for searching LSCH and MeSH to avoid confusion.

The easiest way to find subject headings is to start with a keyword search, using the most specific terms you can think of. Under the influence of search engines, many online library catalogs display only a single search box. That works much less well for a catalog or other database than for a search engine, but it’s a place to start.

If you see a link to “advanced search,” use it. In almost any database, the advanced search is more useful and actually easier to use than the simple search. For subject searching, it may have separate search boxes for subject headings, subject keywords, and general keywords. Enter your terms in subject keywords if available; otherwise choose general keywords.

Your search will return a list of records that contain that term (or, if you have chosen a non-preferred term, records that contain the subject heading). Choose any title that looks promising and click on it to open the record. There, under subjects, you will find the subject heading associated with the keyword you searched, along with any other subject headings in that record. Click on a subject heading and you will get a list of everything in the library with that heading.

In a well designed catalog, a complex subject heading, that is a string of more than one term like “Dogs–United States–Biography–Humor,” will present each term as a separate link. Click on “Dogs” and you should get back a list of subject headings that begin with “Dogs,” followed by screen after screen of all of the subheadings. Click on “United States” and you should get a list of headings that begin with “Dogs–United States,” etc. The farther to the right you click on one of those strings, the more specific search results will return. Unfortunately, not all online library catalogs are well designed.

If you are planning to look up a lot of resources about your subject, write down every useful subject heading you find. You will be able to enter it directly in the search box for subject headings when you return to the catalog and skip the guessing stage.

A Family Tradition: Making Chocolates

Nothing draws families together like shared experiences. When I was growing up, among other things, we made candy every Thanksgiving. Now that we’re adults and all of my siblings have children of their own, we still do. Not just any candy, either–hand dipped chocolate candy.

My father cannot remember a time before his  mother started making candy, but he does remember when she tried chocolates for the first time, in 1932. It was a disaster. She melted some chocolate, made some fondant, dipped the fondant in the chocolate with a fork, and set it aside. When it cooled off, it had all turned an ugly shade of gray, and tasted no better than it looked.

Some time after that, she saw an ad for a chocolate dipper. She applied and got the job at a place called Morrow’s Nut House. Dad says it was well named, as it had a wide assortment of nuts both for sale and behind the counters! One of them, the chief candy maker, terrorized the entire staff except the manager and Grandma, who on one occasion just calmly told him to put down his butcher knife. He was fired eventually and opened his own store. He hired Grandma to to sit in the window and dip chocolates.

Shortly after that, she showed Grandpa how to make candy, and she dipped it after work. They’d make about 300 pounds (with Dad rolling it into balls) and sell it at Christmas time. After all that work, by the time Christmas rolled around, they were too tired to enjoy what they kept for themselves. After two or three Christmases, they decided it was too much trouble for a business and too good to quit entirely, so after that, they made smaller amounts and gave it to friends.

Dad’s graduation from high school might have been the end of the story. He went into the army, then to college and graduate school, but after he got his first job, he and Mom decided to get the recipes and give it a try. The first time didn’t work very well, but they got the  hang of it. I must have been about five at the time. I cannot remember a time before they started making chocolates. They’re still at it. Those of my sibs who live close enough go to their house to make it.

My own efforts parallel Grandma’s and Dad’s. That is, the early ones were disasters. I had always rolled creams and fudge into balls, but never learned to make the centers or dip. My first efforts at dipping looked like Grandma’s, except I had no one nearby to show me how to do it right. (It’s all in the temperature.) Nor did I have all the right equipment or anyplace to put it. I was in graduate school, clear across the country. I hate to admit how many years I ruined most of what I touched before I began to get the hang of it.

The point of this post, however, is the importance of traditions in building a family. I know so many people who have distant or strained relationships with adult siblings. They have little in common besides growing up in the same house or apartment. They did nothing together as a family with any regularity, and so as they grew to adulthood and spread out across the country, they had little reason to keep in touch. Obligatory family gatherings like  holidays became meetings of strangers.

I do not claim that this one tradition explains why we’re all so close to this day and why most of our spouses get along so well. I  could describe others. But we all make candy. We all enjoy taste-testing each other’s candy. And we all enjoy hunting for new kinds of candy Grandma never made and sharing the recipes. A couple of the younger generation have already graduated from college. One’s married. All but one are at least in high school. And I think all but the youngest are proficient candy makers. I know they all like each other and look forward to our time together.

Finding names in an online library catalog

The strength of a library catalog is something called “controlled vocabulary.” That is, there is one and only one way to express a subject or the name of a person, organized group, or legal jurisdiction in a catalog. You don’t have to know what it is; there is something called an authority file running in the background to  help you.

This article is about names, not just authors. For one thing, it includes not only personal names, but names of groups, companies, government jurisdictions, etc. For another, any of these kinds of names can be not only the author of something, but some other relationship (such as illustrator or editor) to something, or a subject of something.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The official way to express  his name in a catalog used to be “Ratzinger, Joseph, 1927-,” but as soon as he became Pope, the official way changed to “Benedict XVI, Pope, 1927-.”  No one would ever guess either form, although everyone is used to the convention of last name first from the phone book.

I had no idea what the correct form was until I just looked up “Ratzinger” in a catalog. My search told me both the old and new forms. That is very helpful, because all of the books by or about him that were published before he became pope have “Joseph Ratzinger” on them, and not “Pope Benedict XVI.” Sooner or later, most people forget a Pope’s former name. Fifty years from now, anyone who reads one of those books and wants to find more by or about Cardinal Ratzinger will be able to search for Ratzinger and find him, along with all later material by or about him, under his  papal name.

The rules for determining the one and only way to formulate the official form of a name are complicated, but that’s actually good for the patrons. It used to be that catalogers had to find and use the fullest form of a person’s real name. People looking for the writings of Mark Twain had to search under Samuel Langhorne Clemens. People looking for the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart found it only under Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Well, that’s what was in his baptismal records.

Even so, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The idea of an authority file is much older than computers. Before online catalogs, there were card catalogs. If anyone went to “Twain, Mark,” there was a card that told them to look under Clemens. But now, the rules call for using the best known form of a name, such as using initials (H. G. Wells instead of Herman George Wells), nicknames (Jimmy Carter instead of James Earl Carter), and shortened forms of a full name (such as Mozart’s).

A related problem is what to do about names in languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. You might find the name Chekov, Chehov, Tchekhov, or any number of other variants on a book. Looking up any of them in the catalog will take you to “Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, 1860-1904.

Unlike personal names, corporate names are given in direct order. That is, “W.K. Kellogg Foundation” instead of “Kellogg, W.K., Foundation;” or “University of Chicago” instead of “Chicago, University of.” Some corporate bodies are part of larger ones. If the name of the smaller group is not distinctive (such as “Music Department”), it is entered after the name of the larger one: “University of Chicago, Dept. of Music.”

The name of a corporate body may not convey the idea of what it is. Marilyn Manson, for example, looks like a woman’s name. There may in fact be several women with that name, but it is also the name of a rock group. In this case, not only is it given in direct order, but there is a parenthetical expression that tells what it is: “Marilyn Manson (Musical group).

There are also geographical names in the name authority file, specifically, countries, states, provinces, counties, cities, villages, or anything else that is capable of authorship. So there are entries for Brazil, Ohio, Lima (Ohio), Lima (Peru), Chicago (Ill.), Grand Canyon National Park (Agency : U.S.), etc., but not for Grand Canyon National Park itself. The park agency can and does produce literature. The canyon itself cannot. It is not in the name authority file, but it is in the subject authority file.

If some of the punctuation and abbreviations for corporate and geographical names looks strange, well, there are lots of rules. People who work in libraries must either get a masters degree in library science in order to begin to learn them or else work in a library cataloging department for a very long time. There are good reasons why the rules are so complicated, but patrons don’t have to worry about them. If they guess wrong, the authority structure is there to help them find what they need. Or they can do a simple keyword search, find whatever names are hotlinks in the records that come up, and click on them.

How an online library catalog differs from Google

Online library catalog

OPAC = Online public access catalog

Some librarians love to bash Google, as if it has no redeeming qualities for serious research.

Others (well, probably not many librarians) claim that Google is so far superior to online library catalogs that the only way to save them is to make them as much like Google as possible.

Well, I think Google is great, but it is not a library catalog and cannot find things that an online library catalog can.

Google cannot find anything that is not online, including lots of library materials.

Even Google Books has its problems. I will have something more to say about it in another post, but as I was playing around with it, I entered the title of a book that was sitting on my desk, published only about thirty years ago. Google Books couldn’t find it. Then I looked for my own book, The Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697-1811 (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1988) using my name (with middle initial) as the search term. There it was, about six items down. (My second book doesn’t come out until next year. Where did all that other stuff come from?) There was no link for finding it in a library, although it’s quite all right with me if someone wants to buy it instead.

Occasionally my Google searches have turned up journal articles that I would love to read, but when I click on the link, I find I have to sign in. I can’t read it from Google, but if my library subscribes to a database that links to the full text of that journal, I can read it from the library’s website. That, too, is a subject for another post.

If people want to find books, sound recordings, videos, serials, databases, or anything else that’s likely to be in a library, they have to use the catalog. And searching the catalog is fundamentally different from searching Google.

Google looks for web sites, which are scattered on servers all over the world. Its only resource is the language actually used by the site. The only way to search it us by supplying keywords that Google can use to find matching sites.

The online library catalog is a database of records for each title in the library. It works by means of various separate indexes. Besides a general keyword index, there are separate indexes for authors, titles, subjects, etc. They do not necessarily use the same terms as are used in the book (or whatever). Library catalogs and databases use what is called “controlled vocabulary” to look through the records, which is a very powerful search tool that essentially eliminates synonyms. Each record has a description of a publication, based on exact transcription of the title page or its equivalent and some controlled vocabulary.

Part of the complication is that you can’t guess at what the controlled vocabulary is likely to be, but you will discover it by doing a general keyword search and looking at the records that you find. All of the hot links are the controlled vocabulary.

Controlled vocabulary means that there is one and only one official way of expressing, say, a person’s name, regardless of how many different people may have the same name or regardless of how many ways one person’s name may appear in various places.

Suppose you have found a book you like, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, by Joseph Ratzinger, and you want to find if he wrote anything more. In case you have forgotten, he is now Pope Benedict XVI.”Ratzinger” will still appear in the description of the book, but the hot link is now for the Pope’s name.

The name Joseph Ratzinger has been reduced to a cross-reference. Why? So that everything by or about him both before and after he became Pope can be found under the same name, no matter which one is actually used for the various publications.

Title: Pilgrim fellowship of faith : the Church as communion / Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger ; edited by Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnür ; translated by Henry Taylor.
Weg gemeinschaft des glaubens: Kirch als communio. English
Personal Author: Benedict XVI, Pope, 1927 Holdings:

Call Number




BR50 .B4613 2005 c.1


Jackson Library — Stacks — Tower 9


Review: Check OneFile for book reviews Publisher: San Francisco, Calif. : Ignatius Press, c2005. Subject Headings: Christianity.
Description: 381 p. ; 21 cm.


If you look at the part labeled “title,” you will notice Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger after the slash. That is the name that appears on the title page. He wasn’t Pope yet when he wrote the book. That part of the record is transcribed exactly from the book itself.

The neat thing is that you can still find the book using Ratzinger as a search term, either as keyword, which picks up what you can see in the record, or even author, which uses magic running in the background.

The “personal author” is identified as Benedict XVI, (etc.). Notice that the last line of the part labeled “title” is “Weg gemeinschaft des glaubens: Kirch als communio. English.” That’s more controlled vocabulary that keeps the translation together with the original German and any translations into other languages that may exist.

If this book were a part of a series, the catalog, would show both the series title as copied from the book and the title from the controlled vocabulary. There are no illustrations, otherwise it would say so under “description.”

Subject headings present special problems. They can come from different vocabularies. If you want to find out about cancer from a library that uses Sears Subject Headings or Library of Congress Subject Heading, the basic term in “Cancer.” But in Medical Subject Headings, it is “Neoplasms.” Once again, the way to find it is to do a keyword search and examine the hotlinks you find.

Title: Strategies for success [electronic resource] : how to write a grant in cancer CAM.

Call Number




SUDOC HE 20.3152:2004011317

Jackson Library

***U.S. Government Web Site***


INTERNET Link: Available online.
Publisher: [Bethesda, Md.] : National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Research Development and Support Office, [2003] Subject Headings: Cancer–Alternative treatment–Research grants–United States.
Proposal writing for grants–United States.


Besides demonstrating subject headings, this screenshot rather neatly proves that the online library catalog can find web sites, too. Google does not have a monopoly! It also illustrates part of the problem I mentioned in an earlier post about the lack of a display standard for library catalogs.

There are two subject headings here. It would be better if each started on a new line. But notice that both subject headings include subheadings, separated by dashes. It should be possible to click on any one segment and find anything to the left of it.

That is, clicking on “United States” in either heading would find anything else with that exact heading. Clicking on “Research grants” in the top heading would broaden the search to find material on research grants for alternative treatment of cancer not limited to the United States. Clicking on “Alternative treatments” would broaden the search still more.

Unfortunately, not every library’s catalog is set up to work that way. Sometimes wherever you click, you will retrieve only records that match the entire string. Oh well, maybe it will at least let you copy and paste whatever you really want into another search. Online library catalogs are not perfect, but library blogs are abuzz with ideas on how to improve them.

How do you find anything in a library catalog?

Online library catalog

OPAC = Online public access catalog

The simple answer is that you can look by keyword, author, title, or subject.

Just type your search terms in the appropriately labeled box and look at whatever results come up. Sounds like Google, only not quite.

The more complicated answer is that a library catalog is a database with separate indexes for keyword, author, title, subject, and so on.

Unlike the Web, they are structured in such a way that there is only one official way to express a name (personal or geographic), title, or subject.

They are also structured in such a way that you do not have to know these official forms before you begin a search, but if you can recognize them, it’s a lot easier to make sense of your results and refine your searches.

Catalogs result from intellectual work!

I must confess that before I got my first library job, I used the card catalog a lot (that should date me!). But it never occurred to me that some individual actually wrote the descriptions on all those cards. I never stopped to think that someone actually determined the form of the author’s name, the way the title was written, the subject headings, etc.!

And it also never occurred to me that librarians had gotten together and agreed on a set of rules for the layout of all of those cards.

That’s kind of an embarrassing admission, because my mother was a librarian. She never worked outside the home after I was born, but she was a volunteer cataloger for our church and for whatever grade school I or my sibs attended. I remember her sitting at the dining room table with a stack of books, a stack of library cards, and a typewriter. I recognized that some of the books were reference books that she used all the time. I just didn’t understand what she was doing besides typing.

It was not until I was ABD (All But Dissertation) on my doctorate that I realized that compiling the information in a library catalog is an intellectual exercise.

Each description is a piece of original research, and ultimately a publication written by a highly skilled individual. If I of all people didn’t know that, what are the chances that anyone else does besides folks who work in a library?

A broken tool

I have just done several Google searches trying to find anyplace where a dialog is taking place between librarians and library patrons. What I have found are mostly static pages posted by libraries for their patrons.

I am not surprised, but I am disappointed. After all, Libraryland is busy arguing over a new set of cataloging rules.

Now that the library catalog has moved online, a catalog has three primary aspects: the actual content of the descriptions, the way they are encoded for the computer, and the way they are displayed on a computer screen.

The new rules, like the ones they replace, are only a content standard. There is also a lot of grumbling over our nearly 40-year-old encoding standard.

Meanwhile, the displays are a mess. There is only one display standard, the so-called International Standard Bibliographic Descriptions (ISBD), published between 1971 and 1977. They were intended to standardize card catalogs.

No online catalog that I know of uses ISBD, but as far as I can tell, there has not even been talk of a display standard since the advent of online catalogs.

Everyone is concerned about the convenience of the users, but I see much more speculation than solid research about who the users are, what they need, and how much they know. I hope that my library-related posts on this blog will start a dialog with library patrons and help the library community get the answers they need to help you better.

Image credit: Some rights reserved by Enokson