Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wednesday Tech Tips: Databases, Part Two

Have you mastered keyword searching by now?  Okay, let's talk about subject searches.

While a keyword search will ping anything containing your search terms, subject searches will restrict your search to finding those terms in the subject or descriptor field.  It's much more akin to tagging: someone has categorized the information under specific topics.  The tricky part is knowing which terms will regurgitate hits.  Subject headings can be awfully nitpicky.

Here is one of my favorite examples: let's say you are writing a paper on the onset of the Civil War.  If you use "civil war" as your subject search, you will turn up some articles about the War Between the States.

But guess what guys?  Many other countries have gone through (or are currently engaged in) civil wars.  So if you want to be sure that your results will only concern the American Civil War, enter:
United States Civil War, 1861-1865

I know!  It can feel like the search engine expects you to know the information you are asking it to find.  I have no memory for dates, this is where I fail in bar trivia.  The Library of Congress subject heading is even longer: United States, History, Civil War, 1861-1865.

So you are going to have to do a bit of work to find the Open Sesame subject terms that will unlock untold riches of information.  Here are some tricks.

  • Some databases, bless their hearts, will display a sidebar of related subject searches when you begin with a keyword search.  So I began with a keyword search for "civil war" and the database I was using (Student Edition) made some suggestions for how I could narrow my search.
  • If you've already found a book or article on your topic, take a look at how it has been tagged.  Then use those subject headings to turn up more information.
Believe it or not, even though it feels like more work initially, subject searches can save you time in the long run, because your results will be more accurate than your keyword search and you won't have to scroll through as many hits.

I hope this is somewhat clear without being too long-winded and jargon-y.  Let me know if you have questions or any suggestions to share!


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