The Library Catalog : Researching Your Topic

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The Library Catalog :

The library catalog stage of your research is much more rewarding if you have done the previous steps outlined here and successfully moved from a vaguely formed idea of a research topic to a fairly sharply focused research question. If you are still working on the basis of a topic name alone, you absolutely must use the Library of Congress Subject Headings List to find the right words (the subject terms) to look up in the catalog.

For example, a student starting her research process might be distressed to learn her university's library apparently contained no information on madness, mental disorders or mental diseases. With the help of a librarian and the Subject Headings List, she was able to realize that the term she needed to be researching was in fact mental illness. The Lists entry for mental illness also told her what many of the related topics were (diagnosis, evaluation, treatment and so on).

As you do your research in the library catalog, perhaps by using specific subject headings or by using the names of particular authors, books or journals you are already aware of, remember you can also search backward. That is, if you find one hit, one source that is exactly on your topic, you can often use that item's catalog entry to tell you how that item is indexed. Then you can feed the index terms you find back into the catalog's search function as search terms, thus discovering new materials that will often shed new light on your subject.

You can also search sideways, finding other sources by the same au¬thor or even looking for other books on the same shelf as one you find that looks useful. You can also do a sideways search for books via an unusual commercial search tool, Amazon's "Customers who bought this book also bought" function ( Give it the name of one reasonably current book on your topic and see what other, similar books it suggests.

You can also search deeper, checking out your subject terms in the catalog of the Library of Congress itself ( If you've started your research early enough, your own library may be able to borrow those other books for you through interlibrary loan.

To continue the section on Make a Research Outline...,

1. Moving From Keywords to A Subject Search

2. Reference Tools

3. Subject Trees

4. The Library Catalog

5. Search Engines

6. Indexes and Databases

7. Databases and Archives

Successful Writing Index

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