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Comparative Literature 101: Introduction to Literary and Critical Theory (Friedman, Spring 2024): Subject Headings & Keywords

Subject Headings

Subject headings are specific, predefined terms that the Library of Congress assigns to printed material. The indexers who assign these must use terms that are listed in a controlled vocabulary, and not all indexers will apply the same "tags" to a given book. 

Subject headings can be useful in discovering books and materials, but their use can be very limiting. For example, they typically do not include multi-disciplinary or complex topics, and it is impossible to apply a subject heading to every topic that is covered in a given book, so they only identify the overarching subjects that a book covers. 

Below are examples of subject headings that might be useful for this topic.

Borges, Jorge Luis, 1899-1986 -- Political and social views

Borges, Jorge Luis, 1899-1986 -- Translations -- History and criticism

Borges, Jorge Luis 1899-1986

Borges, Jorge Luis, 1899-1986 -- Criticism and interpretation
literary theory

Literature -- Philosophy

Literature -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc

Narration (Rhetoric)

Borges, Jorge Luis, 1899-1986 -- Knowledge -- Mathematics

Magic realism (Literature)

Borges, Jorge Luis, 1899-1986--Political and social views

Argentine literature

Argentine literature--20th century



Unlike Subject Headings which use a precise, controlled vocabulary, Keywords are your own search terms that best express the essence of your topic. 

Advantages to using keywords:

  • allows you to combine different concepts. Each concept is separated by AND (borges AND infinit*)
  • you can add synonyms and like terms to increase your search results (philosophy OR logic OR reason)
  • you will retrieve items that may be on topic but that were not given a relevant subject heading
  • you can use the asterisk* symbol to include alternate endings to your root word:  philosoph* will retrieve all records with the word philosophy, philosopher, philosophic, philosophers, philosophical, philosophies, and so forth.

Disadvantages of using keywords:

  • your results may include items that are unrelated or completely off topic
  • you will be searching multiple fields within the catalog record, not just the Subject Headings. This means you will get all results where your keyword appears in the Publisher, Author, Language, or other field in the record


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