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Book Searching

Tutorial for Book Searching

When you have a topic

If you are doing research on a topic, you may want to find out what books and media the library owns about it.

This can be done through keyword and subject searching.

To understand what “keyword” and “subject” mean, you need to understand what a “record” is and how the CUNY Catalog is organized. Note that many databases use the same concepts to organize their information.

Record Organization

The screenshot shows an item record. It lists several pieces of important information about the book, including its author, title, subjects and a link to its call number.

Records store information about items that the library holds. They usually include information about a book's author, title, description, publisher, date of publication, and call number.

Library items are also assigned Library of Congress subject headings according to what topics the item is about.

In this case, the book's subjects are:

War on Terrorism, 2001-

United States -- Foreign relations -- 2001-

Terrorism -- Government policy -- United States


These subjects are assigned to the book by catalogers and are consistent throughout the database. So, the subject heading Terrorism tells you that this is a book about terrorism, but it can also help you find other books that are also about terrorism.

The dashes indicate that something is a subheading. These are used to identify books about more specific aspects of a subject. So, the subject heading:

United States -- Foreign relations -- 2001-

tells us that the book is about the United States, but more specifically, it is about foreign relations within the United States. Even more specifically, it is only concerned with U.S. foreign relations from the year 2001 onward. 

The reason for this is that it is possible to search through the subject headings alphabetically, and this makes it easy to see what topics are addressed by books about the United States.

This is important because you can use the subject headings to find books about your topic. Consider the CUNY Catalog Basic Search.


Subject Searching

The All Fields search will find the words you type in no matter where they are in the record. Other search types will only search one part of the record, such as title, author or subject. Once you know the subject headings, you can eliminate many irrelevant results from your search.

In the example above, if you wanted books on hunger but didn't know the subject heading, you might try an All Fields search first.


You'd find some relevant items:

But you may also find some irrelevant ones, like the book at the bottom here that just happens to mention the word “hunger” in its description.


But, if you look at the first result, you can see what its subject headings are.

You notice that Hunger is a subject heading, with the subheading of United States.


So, you can use “hunger” as a subject search instead:


This time, instead of a list of results, you will get a list of subheadings. These tell you what aspect of hunger our books focus on. You can hit the Next Page button to look for subheadings that are later in the alphabet.

The number on the left tells you how many books we have on that subject.

This can be very helpful in making sure you only get the books that you really want. For instance, only two books have the subject heading Hunger – Case Studies, but you can be sure that they are both case studies about hunger.



More Information

You can also use the keyword in subject search on the basic search page to find items that include your word (hunger) in their subject headings, but not as the first word. This will only find books for which hunger is a subject heading, not books in which it is mentioned elsewhere in the record.

Be careful — not all words are subject headings! If you try to guess which words to use for a subject search without looking for them in the record of a book first, you may be frustrated. For more hints on finding appropriate subject headings, see our Subject Headings Tutorial.

For information about physically obtaining books you have seen in the catalog, please see our Call Number Tutorial.

For information about topic searching in databases, see the tutorial Topic Search (Databases).