Subject Headings: What They Are and Why They Matter

Jun 13, 2023

Subject Headings: What They Are and Why They Matter



Subject headings are important because they are a major part of how patrons find resources in your library catalog. They are also useful for staff as well when finding resources. In most integrated library systems, including Surpass Cloud, subjects are also used for keyword searching.

What is a Subject Heading?

A subject heading can tell you the topics covered by the resource, what location it refers to, and other pieces of information to help users find relevant items. Sub-headings can also be used to further refine the heading by adding more information. Subject headings must be consistent, with the same terms used throughout the catalog for the same concepts.

Types of Subject Headings

Subject headings can be topical, chronological, or form headings. Topical headings, such as “Wit and humor, Juvenile” are based on the topics of the item. Chronological headings, like “United States—History—1969-“ identify what period the material covers.

Form headings identify the genre or type of item: “Action and adventure movies” or “Maps”, for example.

Sometimes geographical headings are used to show the place that the work is about (for example, “North Yorkshire (England)”).

You can also add sub-headings to give a more detailed description. For example, “Numismatics—Collectors and collecting” shows that the item has a focus on collectors and collecting of currency in addition to studying currency, or numismatics.

A good way to ensure consistency is to follow a subject authority such as the Library of Congress or Sears subject headings. You can also create your own subject headings, but they also require consistency. Library automation systems can be affected by small differences such as misspellings, or large differences such as different words being used for the same subject. For a “homegrown” set of subject headings, a style guide is useful as a reference.

Commonly used MARC fields for subject headings include 650 for topical headings, 651 for geographic headings, and 655 for genre/form. A list of MARC fields used for subject headings can be found at the Library of Congress website.

How Subject Headings are Used

Subject headings are commonly used to search for items. They can also be cross-referenced with author information to narrow searches further.

In Surpass, you can also use subject headings to create Resource Lists and in searches conducted when Explore Buttons on the online public catalog are clicked. Resources for book displays can be easily found when subject headings are searched.


Subject headings help both patrons and staff to locate items on a particular topic. Consistent subject headings are crucial to the success of searches. Either established subject heading authorities or a consistent in-house system can be used to help users find your resources.

About Surpass 

Surpass Cloud is the easy-to-use, cloud-based library management system for libraries of all types and sizes. Whether you’re a school, church, museum, business, or any other organization with resources to lend, Surpass is likely a good fit for you. We pride ourselves on being affordable and flexible, with an expert support team ready to help you at a moment’s notice.


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