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How to Use Subject Headings to Browse the Library of Congress Online Catalog

This post is coauthored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, senior legal reference specialists.

As reference librarians here at the Law Library of Congress, we get a wide array of questions from our patrons. One of the most frequently asked questions we receive, however, is how to most effectively find relevant legal resources in our collection. The collection of the Law Library of Congress is immense–totaling over 2.91 million volumes–so, as you can imagine, we can only feature a small portion of the Law Library’s collection in our reading room. Thus, to fully discover the breadth of our collection, we suggest using the Library of Congress’s online catalog.

Six People working in the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress. View in old wing before rebuilding for Union Catalog. Dr. Bernard is shown on the right. Photograph by L.C. Handy. (Created in 19250. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51505

Six People working in the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress. View in old wing before rebuilding for Union Catalog. Dr. Bernard is shown on the right. Photograph by L.C. Handy. (Created in 1925). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51505

Most patrons are tempted to begin their search of our catalog by using the keyword search feature, but, as our colleagues at the Main Reading Room have pointed out, a keyword search can be inefficient. This issue can be a particular problem when doing legal research, as legal concepts can be expressed in many different ways, and a simple keyword search will not account for all the synonyms a researcher might need. Because of this, we suggest that researchers take advantage of the hard work of our dedicated catalogers by browsing subject headings when they are looking for materials on a particular topic.

Browsing subject headings in the catalog is easy. Click here to access our catalog, and then click “Browse.” Next, use the drop-down menu to choose “SUBJECTS beginning with” or “SUBJECTS containing” (if you are not sure what word the subject heading starts with, we suggest selecting “SUBJECTS containing”), and type in a subject in the search box. For example, if you are searching for legal forms pertaining to Florida, you might type “Florida Forms.” You will likely receive several pages of results. Choose a subject heading, and you will see all of the materials classified under that heading.

Another way to browse subject headings is to begin with material that you know is relevant to your research. With this method, researchers typically start with a book or periodical that has been helpful, and use it to find other materials on that topic. To do this, find the entry for the helpful item in our catalog, and scroll down to the “Subjects” section. You can click on any one of the subjects listed to retrieve a list of other items that have been classified under that subject heading by our catalogers.

We hope this helps you better take advantage of the largest law library in the world. Please contact us through Ask A Librarian if you have any questions.

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