Skip Navigation Links  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
Main Reading Room (Humanities and Social Sciences Division)
  Home >> Bibliographies & Guides >>
Doing Research at the Library of Congress

Doing Research at the Library of Congress

IIB. The Four Ways to Find Proper Subject Headings

d. "Browse" lists of subdivisions

The fourth way to find the right subject heading(s) for your topic is to exploit yet another important display feature of the Library's online catalog: "browse" lists of subdivisions. If you start from the "Basic Search" screen and select "Subject Browse" (see Figure 3, Subject Browse in the Library of Congress Online Catalog), you can simply type in the first word of a subject term, and all strings starting with that word will automatically appear for your inspection.

The importance of subdivisions may be illustrated by a question that was asked about Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on religious liberty. Simply typing in the name Jefferson, Thomas as a subject automatically brought up a whole roster of subdivisions, among them:

Jefferson, Thomas, 1743–1826--Bibliography
--Quotations
--Views on freedom of religion

None of these subdivisions appears listed under Jefferson's name in the LCSH red books; but they do appear in the catalog itself. The third subdivision, --Views on freedom of religion, is obviously directly relevant. It leads to Merrill D. Peterson's Thomas Jefferson, Religious Liberty and the American Tradition (Jefferson Institute, 1987), which is a whole book on the subject.

The second subdivision, --Quotations, leads to works such as The Real Thomas Jefferson (National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1983) and Seeking the Moral Wisdom of the Founder of American Government (L. Faucett, [1975]), both of which provide compilations of Jefferson's own words, categorized by subject (including the subject of religious liberty).

The first subdivision, --Bibliography, leads to both Frank Shuffleton's Thomas Jefferson: A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him (1826-1980) (Garland, 1983) and Eugene L. Huddleston's Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Guide (G. K. Hall, 1982). Together, these two annotated bibliographies list dozens of sources on Jefferson and religious liberty.

Scanning through menus of subdivisions in a catalog greatly increases your chances of recognizing relevant resources that cannot be clearly specified in advance. Most people interested in a topic such as "Jefferson" and "religious liberty" might think of typing in those keywords in a Boolean combination; but few would think of searching for published bibliographies or quotation books unless they had a mechanism that brought such resources to their attention when they weren't looking for them. This is exactly what browse displays will do for you. They are the kind of mechanism that researchers earnestly yearn for in Internet searches; but Web search engines such as Google or Yahoo or the others cannot provide them. The Library's catalog offers a major advantage over Internet search engines in this regard: it can orient you in a systematic manner to the range of search options within your topic. It provides a structured list of all of the topic's various aspects, often phrased in ways that you would not think of by yourself.

It must be emphasized that most of the subdivisions appearing in online browse displays are not recorded in the LCSH red books. Most are "free floating," which, in cataloging terminology, means that they can be assigned where appropriate (and according to various rules) without the assignment being explicitly recorded in the LCSH list. In other words, you will see many more aspects of a topic spelled out in the online browse displays than you will see listed in the red books themselves.

Another example of the utility of browse displays showed up when a researcher asked for help in finding books on the history of Afghanistan. On his own he had done a keyword search simply combining "Afghanistan" and "history," and had been overwhelmed with "ranked" results that proved nevertheless to be largely useless, because the keywords appeared in so many inappropriate contexts. By doing a browse search for subject headings rather than a keyword search, however, he achieved a much better overview of the resources available to him. Simply typing in the name of the country produced nearly fifty screens of subdivisions, among them the following [with "free floater" indicating subdivisions not explicitly listed in the red books]:

Afghanistan
Afghanistan--Antiquities
Afghanistan--Bibliography [free floater]
Afghanistan--Biography [free floater]
Afghanistan--Biography—Dictionaries [free floater]
Afghanistan--Boundaries [free floater]
Afghanistan--Civilization [free floater]
Afghanistan--Civilization—Bibliography [free floater]
Afghanistan--Commerce [free floater]
Afghanistan--Commerce—History [free floater]
Afghanistan--Constitutional history [free floater]
Afghanistan--Description and travel
Afghanistan--Economic conditions [free floater]
Afghanistan--Emigration and immigration [free floater]
Afghanistan--Encyclopedias [free floater]
Afghanistan--Foreign economic relations [free floater]
Afghanistan--Foreign relations--Great Britain [free floater]
Afghanistan--Foreign relations--Sources [free floater]
Afghanistan--Foreign relations--United States--Sources [free floater]
Afghanistan--Geography--Bibliography [free floater]
Afghanistan--Guidebooks [free floater]
Afghanistan--Historical geography [free floater]
Afghanistan--Historiography [free floater]
Afghanistan--History
Afghanistan--History--Bibliography [free floater]
Afghanistan--History--Chronology [free floater]
Afghanistan--History--Dictionaries [free floater]
Afghanistan--History--20th century--Sources [free floater]
Afghanistan--History--Soviet occupation, 1979–1989
Afghanistan--History Kings and rulers--Biography [free floater]
Afghanistan--Maps [free floater]
Afghanistan--Pictorial works [free floater]
Afghanistan--Politics and government
Afghanistan--Relations--India [free floater]
Afghanistan--Social life and customs [free floater]
Afghanistan--Social policy [free floater]
Afghanistan--Study and teaching [free floater]
Afghanistan--Yearbooks [free floater]

Anyone interested in the history of this (or any other) country might very well wish to pursue the many relevant aspects of the topic beyond those indicated by the explicit subdivision --History. Without such a browse display, however, it is impossible to get an overview, to begin with, of the remarkable range of options available for pursuing the topic.

The rule for researchers, then, is this: whenever your topic has a browse display of subdivision strings connected to it, take the time to scan through all of them, even if the list is many screens in length. In almost all cases you will be able to recognize interesting aspects of your topic that you could never have specified in advance, in Boolean combinations. The larger a library's collection is, the more readers require systems that enable them to recognize options that cannot be clearly foreseen; browse displays in the online catalog address this problem directly, as do the rosters of alphabetically adjacent headings within the red books, and the network of cross-references. These are some of the most powerful tools the Library offers in helping readers to get oriented, and to see right from the start the range of research options available in unfamiliar subject areas.

<<< Previous Page Next Page >>>
Top of Page Top of Page
  Home >> Bibliographies & Guides >>
Doing Research at the Library of Congress
  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
  September 13, 2011
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:  
Ask a Librarian