Finding Ancestors in Libraries with Subject Headings

Have you ever wondered if others have written your family’s genealogy? Maybe you’ve tried some keyword searches and come up empty handed? Then you need to learn about subject headings! Today we’re specifically talking about subject headings related to surnames. This type of searching relies on understanding and leveraging specific terms used in a bibliographic catalog record. While I can’t guarantee that every surname in every book has been included in catalog records, this technique will give you a better chance of finding them.

One issue with looking for genealogies in library catalogs is that they rarely include summaries or descriptive titles. Because of this, general keyword searches often fail. So how do you find a book if the title doesn’t include any surnames or locations? This is where subject headings come in! Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are a list of terms that are controlled by the Library of Congress. The point of subject headings is that similar types of information all get funneled into one designated word, so no matter who is creating the record or how a user is searching, all books with similar content can be located in one search. LCSHs were originally created to help sort out materials in the Library of Congress, but now they are a national, even international, standard.

How do subject headings work?

Let’s take “genealogy,” for example. We know there are lots of words that mean the same thing as genealogy but someone creating a catalog record might not think of all of the words. If the librarian typed “family history” as subject heading for a book but you searched the catalog for “genealogy” you would never find that book! Fortunately the Library of Congress has made “Genealogy” the official subject heading for all these synonyms:

  • Ancestry
  • Descent
  • Family history (Genealogy)
  • Family trees
  • Genealogical research
  • Pedigrees

Subject headings sound great, right? But they only work within reason. What if you search the word “lineage”? That’s not on the list of approved synonyms for “genealogy.” You might end up with a list of books that have the word “lineage” in their title but you will miss the majority of genealogy books in the library catalog. This is why knowing the official LC Subject Headings for the things you are interested in can help make your searches even better.

For more tips on using LCSHs in your genealogy research you might check out this handy guide to subject searching:

So what about surnames?

The Library of Congress recognizes that individual surnames are a common topic of published material. However, it would be impossible to assign each variation of a surname to a separate subject heading. For one thing, this would be impossible since many surnames have dozens of variations, second it would defeat the purpose of trying to bring together similar information into one keyword. Since names have changed even from one generation to the next and one record to the next, it is wise to research all the variations anyway!

Instead, the Library of Congress has grouped together similar surnames and assigned them to a single subject heading. All of these headings are formatted as: [surname] family. So “Barber family” is an official subject heading. Each surname subject heading is likely to have several variants. Variants for Barber include: Barbour, Barbar and Barbor. So when I’m researching my Barbour family I should keep that in mind and try searches for “Barber family.”

How do I find the official subject heading?

To find the official subject heading I visited the Library of Congress Linked Data website where the subject headings are searchable: I selected “LC Subject Headings” from the menu, and searched for the surname I was interested in.

LCSH linked data

This is all well and good if you search the subject heading list and a surname variant comes up right away, but what if the variant surname you search has no results? This might take a little more looking.

As an example, let’s look at my mother’s paternal line: the Straughens. This is a very unusual surname! When I go to WorldCat and search for “Straughen AND genealogy” as keywords I get 4 results that aren’t really what I’m looking for. How can I find more relevant books about my family with a subject heading? When I go to the LC Subject Heading search and put in “Straughen family” nothing comes up. Now what?

I know from my research that Straughen originated from the surname “Strawn.” (If you don’t know what variants of a particular surname are common then try poking around on Google for thinks like “___ surname origin” or “___ surname variants”.) When I put “Strawn” into the LCSH search I find out that “Strawn family” is an approved subject heading and one of the variants is “Straughan.” That’s much closer to what I’m looking for! If I go back to WorldCat and select Advanced Search I can choose “subject” from a dropdown menu. This will allow me to search for a specific subject heading that I know exists. I put in “Strawn family” and I got back 34 results this time, including several with “Straughan” right in the title! By pursuing a few of these books I might find out that the variant I am interested in is also included in the book even though it wasn’t written anywhere in the catalog record.

Strawn family

What are the official LC subject headings for the surnames you are researching? Look them up and leave them in the comments below!

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