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Searching Databases Using Subject Headings

Library Research

Subject Terms Hierarchy

To find subject terms to include in your search open the Subject Terms directory which is located on the top of the opening page of Academic Search Ultimate.

(Figure 1 - Subject Terms directory in Academic Search Ultimate)

Let’s say that you want to begin a search on the topic of aquatic resources. According to the Scope Note, aquatic resources is a term that concerns "water-based resources in general." A Broader term is Natural Resources and a Narrower term is Algae.

Aquatic Resources subject hierarchy

(Figure 2 Aquatic Resources Heading)

Search terms related to the topic conservation of aquatic life were filled in below.  

Exploring Search Terms

Topic__conservation of aquatic life_________________________________________________

Two possible subject terms to use in finding articles

1. ___aquatic resources______________________ 2. ___aquatic resources conservation_____

What terms are listed in the database’s subject headings or thesaurus?

1. __natural resources __________________ 2. __algae________________________________

Which term widens the scope of the search? ___natural resources  ______________________

Which term narrows the scope of the search?___algae________________________________

Useful search terms __aquatic resources, aquatic resources conservation_________________

Misleading search terms ___  water pollution prevention  ________________________________

The Subject Terms featured in Academic Search Ultimate use the Subject Terms Hierarchy which is a way to show relationships between one subject term and other related terms. Understanding a Subject Terms Hierarchy will be helpful in other areas of library research.

A Subject Terms Hierarchy is a list of terms presented so that the relationship of terms is visually shown. The broad term is listed on top and terms underneath that term are less broad in definition. Each level is indented. This structure is known as a hierarchy.

Conservation of Natural Resources (Term = broad)

          Water Conservation (Term = Second level less broad)

                      Water Conservation Projects (Term = Third level less broad)

Try it yourself! Click here to see what a database search using subject headings looks like.


Take a minute. Test of your understanding of hierarchical subject lists of terms. This link will open an interactive test where you can practice comparing subject headings.

Searches with subject terms