Print Resources & Search Strategies:
Author, Title, Keyword & Subject Searching

1) Types of Print Resources
2) Subject Headings & Classification Systems
3) Call Numbers
4) Author, Title, Subject & Keyword Searching

5) Quiz

The online catalog is
one of the most important access tools used in research. The catalog is a bibliographic database containing a record for every item in a library's collection. You're able to display basic details about every item owned by a library, including books and audiovisual and electronic materials.

Before online catalogs, libraries used to maintain card catalogs in which thousands of 3 x 5 cards, each describing a separate book, were kept in hundreds of file drawers. Starting around 1980, however, libraries began replacing card catalogs with online catalogs, and today card catalogs have all but disappeared.

It is important to understand that OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogs) do not index the contents of periodicals, i.e. they do not give you lists of magazine articles. You use a different access tool -- a periodical index, such as Gale's Expanded Academic ASAP -- to search for citations to individual articles.

Although catalogs often have a different look from library to library in terms of menus, record displays, and commands, they all have the same basic structure and operate according to the same principles.

Every online catalog allows you to search and display results from its database of bibliographic records. The bibliographic record offers you a detailed description of a book or other item owned by the library. Every item in a library's collection has an individual record and all the records together comprise the database of a library's holdings.

Listed below are the fields of a typical bibliographic record found in an OPAC:

  • TITLE (will often include a subtitle after a colon)
  • EDITION (1st, 2nd, 3rd, revised, etc.)
  • PUBLISHER (city where published, name of publishing company, and date of publication)
  • PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION (number of pages, number of illustrations, height of the book)
  • NOTES (chapter titles or brief summary of the book -- not always available)
  • SUBJECTS (the official Library of Congress subject headings assigned to the book)

By paying careful attention to the information contained in the fields of a record, skillful researchers learn a great deal about a book and its relevance to their research even before looking for it on the shelves.

The CSM Library online catalog lists and describes the holdings of all the libraries in a family of libraries known as the Peninsula Library System (PLS). The PLS includes the three community colleges in this district (Skyline, College of San Mateo, and Canada), and all the public libraries in San Mateo County, for a total of 35 member libraries. The catalog is available from any computer with an Internet connection.


AUTHOR SEARCH: Do an author search when you have a specific author in mind. Books may be written by one or more individuals, or by a "corporate" author -- an organization, such as a government agency, association, or company that is recognized as the author of a work.


  • Dickens, Charles (usually last name entered first, separated by a comma from the first name)
  • Asimov, Isaac
  • American Cancer Society (a corporate author)

Click here to connect to the library catalog. 

You are now on the Basic Search screen. In the pulldown menu on the left, change "Keyword" to "Author." Type: sagan, carl. Press enter or click on search.

The result of your search is an alphabetical listing of authors' last names.
The first name on the list should be SAGAN, CARL, 1934- (the year refers to Sagan's year of birth).

Double-click on Sagan, Carl, 1934- and you will be brought to the first 12 records for Carl Sagan.

One useful feature of the catalog is that it allows you to limit your search results by a variety of criteria. For example, let's assume that you're only interested in books by Carl Sagan that are at CSM Library. To see this list, click on the "Limit/Sort Search" button found at the top or bottom of your screen. You will now be brought to a screen that allows you to limit your results by location, material type, language, etc. 

Under "Location," click on the down arrow and scroll down until you reach College of San Mateo. Click "Submit" at the top of the screen and you will get a new list of results -- this time, books by Carl Sagan at CSM Library.

Now, if you like, you can sort these results by date.  At the top of the page, change "System Sorted" to "Reverse Year" and click on "Sort." This will put the most recent books at the top of the list.

Double click on the title of the most recent book to display the full bibliographic record. This screen shows you which libraries own the book, what the call number is, and whether a given copy is checked out or available.  If the status says "Check Shelf," that means the book should be available.

Putting a Hold on an Item

All libraries in PLS share the same library card. You can borrow an item from any library, return it to any library, renew items online, and have items from other PLS libraries delivered to CSM Library, free of charge.

To have an item you want sent to CSM, click on the yellow "Hold" button at the top or bottom of the item's record and follow the instructions on the next page. NOTE: CSM waives the 75 cent hold fee charged by other libraries in the system.

TITLE SEARCH: Do a title search when you know the exact title of a book, or even just a few words from the title.


  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Saturn and Beyond
  • A Cancer Sourcebook for Nurses

Do a title search in the catalog by following these directions:

Click here to connect to the library catalog. 

You are now on the Basic Search screen. In the pulldown menu on the left, change "Keyword" to "Title." Type: A Journey Into the Deaf World. (It doesn't matter whether you use upper or lowercase letters.)

You will now see the full record for this book.

Now let's imagine that you would like to know if there are other books on the same subject in PLS. This is where subject headings come in:

Click on the first subject heading for this book: "Deaf - Social Conditions." You will be brought to a screen that enables you to browse through catalog's list of subject headings, starting with the one you just clicked: "Deaf - Social Conditions." Notice that the other headings all begin with the same main heading ("Deaf") and are followed by various subdivisions that describe different aspects of the subject. You can scroll both up and down this list of subject headings.

Click on "Deaf - United States - Social Conditions" to see a list of other books with the same subject heading.

Note that subject headings are very specific.  Usually you cannot guess what the official Library of Congress Subject Heading for a given topic will be ahead of time.  For instance, if you were looking for books on Japanese internment camps during World War II, how would you know to search under "Japanese Americans--Evacuation and Relocation. 1942-1945"? That's where keyword searching comes in.

KEYWORD SEARCH: Keyword searching allows you to think of your own "keywords" to describe your topic.

The results can be somewhat "messy," since the computer will look for your search term(s) in any field of the record. But keyword searching offers you the advantage of not having to know the "correct" subject heading. It is often a good strategy to start with a keyword search rather than a subject search when you are looking for books on a specific topic and don't know the official subject heading.

This is a strategy often used by experienced researchers:

  1. Start with a keyword search. Think of one or two keywords that describe your topic. Your keywords should usually be somewhat general.
  2. Examine your results list to find one book that seems to match your topic.
  3. Display the full record for this book and look closely at the subject headings.
  4. Click on the subject heading(s) that best match your topic and you'll be brought to other books on that exact subject.

This strategy helps eliminate "false hits" -- search results that have nothing to do with what you're really looking for. Let's see how it works in practice:

Click here to connect to the library catalog. 

Assume you're doing research on the American Civil War. Type American Civil War in the entry box. Press enter or click on search.

You will be shown the first 12 hits (records) in a list of over 800 hits. However, since you did a keyword search, it is reasonable to assume that not all of these books will be about the American Civil War. In fact, if you look at the full records for the first several books, you'll see that there are false hits.

Choose a book from the list that looks promising. Look at the full record and examine it closely. Scroll down to see the entire record.

You will see subject headings such as the following: 

United States - History - Civil War, 1861-1865 - Sources
United States - History - Civil War, 1861-1865  - Social Life and Customs

These are formal LC subject headings having to do with the American Civil War. Clearly, these are headings you probably would not have thought of on your own. Rather, the keyword search leads you to the relevant subject headings.

Click on one of the subject headings to display all the books cataloged under that heading.

Go to Quiz

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