Subject Searching

4 min read

| By Heather Hedden |

Back in the 1990s, the full browsable subject thesaurus used in InfoTrac was the default end-user display for initiating a search of periodical articles. Over the years the browsable thesaurus became a non-default option and the disappeared, leaving only the possibility of searching among Subjects within a search box.  While I originally missed the browsable thesaurus, I now realize that, with the addition of other enhancements of the search interface and features, the use of Subjects is now optimal for most Gale database users.

Subject index terms have always provided the most accurate and complete search results, but the role that index terms play in the search process has evolved, in both Gale products and in other information resources. Originally, researchers started by browsing a full list of subjects that may have been arranged alphabetically (as a traditional book-style index) or hierarchically (as a taxonomy). They navigated the index to find more specific subdivisions as aspects of the main heading, or they navigated the taxonomy to drill down to the most specific term. As the volume of indexed documents or other content items has grown over the years, browsing and selecting a term from a taxonomy or thesaurus is often no longer as practical. An individual term often has too many records indexed to it. Furthermore, many Gale and other thesauri have grown too large to easily browse.

So, instead of thesaurus Subject terms being used as the primary starting point by most users to find desired documents, Subject terms are more often used to narrow or limit search results. The user executes a search in the search engine, and if they get too many results (which is usually the case), they can limit or filter the results by various aspects listed in the margin, including by indexed subject. (Other aspects include date range, document type, publication title, etc.) The Subjects display in order of frequency of occurrence on the records in the search result set, and the user can select among them, rather than having to browse the entire taxonomy or thesaurus.

Use of subjects and other attributes to limit search results is becoming very common across various implementations, so most people are familiar with using them—such as enterprise search systems to find internal corporate documents, e-commerce websites for selecting products, and library databases such as Gale’s for selecting research articles and resources.

Despite the trend toward using Subject terms as post-search refinements, Subjects also remain available to initiate a search in Gale products, starting from either the Basic or the Advanced search page. Recently, I compared the presentation of Subjects in Gale InfoTrac databases with that of its competitors.

Where Gale stands above the competition with respect to the presentation of Subjects:

  • A Subject Guide on the database default home screen (not relegated to Advanced Search)
  • The ability to explore related terms (broader, narrower, and related) from Subjects selected in the Subject Guide
  • The ability to limit results for selected Subjects in the Subject Guide by subdivision aspects (e.g. Case studies, Forecasts and trends, Political aspects, Statistics, Study, and teaching, etc.)
  • The option to select the Subjects (from a drop-down) to search in on the basic search of the default home screen
  • Subjects displayed near the top of the options for “Limit Search by” in the margin of a search result set, rather than requiring scrolling down.
  • The top three Subjects (based on usage count) already displayed, with a plus sign to access more, rather than a plus sign to view any Subjects

I will be exploring and demonstrating this topic in a presentation “Customer Focused Thesauri” (in addition to a pre-conference workshop on taxonomy creation) at the Computers in Libraries conference in Arlington, VA, on April 18.


About the Author

Heather Hedden is a senior vocabulary editor at Gale, where she edits the subject thesaurus and other metadata for the indexing and retrieval of Gale research database content and develops discipline taxonomies for educational products. Heather is currently a member of the board of the American Society for Indexing, is author of The Accidental Taxonomist (Information Today Inc., 2010, 2016), and blogs at



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