Search Vocabulary

Library databases have their own language for describing things, displayed in the "subjects" that you'll see listed next to citations. Subject headings are a kind of controlled vocabulary, and using them well can transform your search results from random chaos to beautiful relevance.

Research Do's and Don'ts

This page from Literature: A Guide for Graduate Students includes broader "how to search" advice, e.g. MIT's Database Search Tips (a great, concise introduction to Booleans, keywords v. subjects, and search fields

Narrow to Scholarly Criticism

Sometimes it can be a challenge to separate the scholarship about a topic from the primary sources.

In HOLLIS (primarily Library Catalog):

In the MLA

  • No extra terms needed! The MLA is an index of scholarship, and primarily literary scholarship.

Describe Your Topic by...



  • Search “lastname, firstname” as an exact phrase. You may need to specify further—compare, for example, “James, Henry” against “James, Henry 1843.”

In HOLLIS Everything and other aggregator databases

  • If you're not sure about how reliably subjects are deployed in a database, it's a good idea to search "lastname, firstname" OR "firstname lastname"


Time Period - Century and Multi-century Literary Periods

Time Period - Decades, Historical Events, etc.