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ELISE | Informing your studies: Alternative subject terms


Quiz question There may be a quiz question related to the information on this page.

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Tip Spelling

A library catalogue will generally use American spelling for subjects, e.g. color, labor, pediatrics, organizational, encyclopedia, etc.

Tip Subjects

Database records include subject terms. These terms can help you find more on a topic.

Database records may use alternative names for subject terms. They could be called descriptors, identifiers or subjects.


Search for dictionaries and encyclopedias in the Library collection:

  • for a definition of fascism, search using a broader subject term such as politics
  • truncate encyclopedia e.g. encyclop* to find encyclopedia (US) and encyclopaedia (UK)
  • available online or in print

Using alternative search terms


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Using alternative terms

When you get your assignment, you may notice that only using the words from your question might not retrieve the best results from the library's resources. As you will be searching a world of material, it is important to remember to keep trying different keywords if you aren't finding what you need. For example, if the term aboriginal doesn't retrieve useful results try searching for the term indigenous. Also, remember that American spelling is sometimes different to Australian spelling e.g. colour and color, and different terms are sometimes used in other countries e.g. footpath, pavement and sidewalk.

Starting with a broad term can give you ideas for other terms to search. You can also get more targeted results by searching for only those terms most relevant to your topic. There are some terms so new, the databases may not recognise them yet. Start with a web search or a current online dictionary.

Before citing any online information in your work it is a good idea to evaluate the information according to these criteria:

  • Currency
  • Authority
  • Reliability
  • Point of view
Remember, a good search will mean experimenting with different terms until you find what you need.


Subject headings, or descriptors, are used in catalogue and database records to describe the contents of a book, article or other resource. They are a useful way of checking to see if an item you have found will be relevant to the topic you are researching.

Note the subjects in the following record:



This record has the following subjects:

Cities and towns -- Energy consumption
Energy policy

Urban economics
City planning -- Environmental aspects
Architecture / Urban & Land Use Planning
Architecture / Sustainability & Green Design
Business & Economics / Infrastructure
Business & Economics / Green Business
Business & Economics / Urban & Regional
Nature/ Environmental Conservation & Protection

Identifying the subjects of an item helps you:

  • find more on a topic
  • decide whether or not the item will be useful
  • find other useful search terms