How Subject Headings Make Finding the Right Information Easier

In the age of Google, we’re used to finding information by simply typing a few words into a search bar. We can immediately locate resources on the history of the National Parks System or the invention of the telephone with just a few keystrokes. But when it comes to searching digitized archival documents, a simple text search can be overwhelming – even within a small collection of resources instead of the whole Internet.

One of the ways that History Factory archivists make our clients’ historic resources more accessible is by using a controlled vocabulary of subject headings. This helps researchers find the most relevant information for their needs without getting bogged down with as much extraneous material as they might with a simple text search.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on the archives of the founder of a global corporation. One major theme in this collection is the emergence and development of new technologies, and a researcher might want to find materials in the collection that relate to this subject. But “technology” is a common word, and a general document text search produces more than 250 records:

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Though these documents will all have the word “technology” in them, not all of them are necessarily about technology. For example, a speech that mentions in passing that companies can contribute to their communities by donating technology would show up in this search. However, this speech would be much more relevant to someone doing research on corporate social responsibility or corporate giving than to someone doing research on the company’s development of new technology.

This is where subject headings become useful. You might be familiar with blogs that use tags to help identify what various posts are about. Subject headings are a more formal version of the same idea. Information professionals use them when creating a catalog to give users an efficient way to find relevant records using a specifically defined list of words or phrases. When you search for “technology” in this collection as a subject heading, you get a much more refined selection of results:

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Though there are fewer results, each will be about technology. When one of our archivists creates a record in the database describing something like the speech I’ve described here, she probably wouldn’t use technology as a subject heading. However, an article by the company’s founder detailing a new technology and how it was developed would be much more relevant to the subject of technology, and would be associated with this subject heading when it is entered in to the database.

Subject headings are also especially important for records that don’t include text, such as photographs, moving images and sound, as well as items in a collection that is not digitized. For these kinds of items, archival description and subject headings might provide the only way a user can find items relating to a particular subject.

Without a doubt, digitizing documents in a collection into text-searchable documents is extremely useful. But subject headings provide an additional level of access for those doing research on specific topics.