How can I use subject headings to improve my searching?

Subject headings are similar to tags or hashtags.  They describe the topic of an item in a database, but unlike tags, they come from an official, standardized set of terms and are assigned by cataloguing experts. 

You can use subject headings to:

  • Determine the subject of an article or book
  • Search more efficiently for books and articles on topics
  • Discover other items on the same subject – the subject headings are linked

There are several kinds of subject headings used in library databases.  They can be subject-specific like the Medical Subject Headings used in Medline  or more general like the Library of Congress Subject Headings used in the library catalogue.  

 Not all databases use subject headings. JSTOR, Web of Science, Summon, Google Scholar, and Scopus all don't use them.

Where to find them

  • In the item record's detailed description – See example below for subjects for the book Ethics of Consumption in LibrarySearch

circle around details category
circle around subject headings for ethics of consumption

Other places

  • In a sidebar of the search results screen – usually on the left – as a way to refine your search
  • In a THESAURUS or INDEX TERMS link on the advanced search page of a database


  • Index terms
  • Thesaurus terms
  • Subject terms
  • Descriptors

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