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Searching for Books Efficiently

The most efficient way to search for books is to use Primo, the library's discovery layer. You can find the Primo search box in the middle of the library's home page.

By default, Primo only searches books (physical or electronic) owned by the Grinnell College Libraries. If you want, you can expand your search to include books owned by other libraries. Just open up the drop-down menu at the top of the page that says "Books, Articles & Media @ Grinnell" and choose the "Books, Articles & Media Everywhere" option instead. Now you're searching WorldCat (the worldwide library catalog) in addition to Grinnell's local catalog. 

There are hundreds of millions of books in WorldCat, so you'll want to do the most targeted searches you can. Otherwise you'll be scrolling through results lists for days! But some powerful tools are available to you when you're searching most library catalogs (including Grinnell's and WorldCat) to help you create very targeted searches. The most powerful tool is the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Actual human librarians look at every single book that's published and assign subject headings to it from the Library of Congress's six-volume-long list of subject headings. Leveraging those subject headings lets you do much more precise searches than just using keywords.

You can use the six-volume-list if you want -- there's a copy in reference in Burling -- but you can usually get a pretty good idea of the right subject heading for your topic by doing some keyword searches and taking a look at the subject headings that have been applied to them. To see the subject headings, click on a title in Primo and scroll down to the details.

Library of Congress Subject Headings are assembled using a formula, with terms for different aspect of the subject connected by double dashes. In the social sciences, that formula usually looks something like this:

Main topic -- specific aspects of topic -- geographic area -- time period

Let's look at the subject headings for an actual book to see how this works. These subject headings are for Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century, by Tracey Deutsch.

Women consumers -- United States -- History -- 20th century
Grocery shopping -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
Grocery trade -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
Supermarkets -- United States -- History -- 20th century

Note the term "social aspects" in the middle two subject headings for this book. You'll see those words in the subject headings of a lot of sociology and cultural anthropology books. You can tack "social aspects" on to the subject headings for almost anything that has a social aspect, no matter how remote, to get books on the cultural anthropology or sociology of that process, activity, etc. There are 91 books in WorldCat with the subject heading "Petroleum industry and trade -- social aspects," 59 with "Mountaineering -- social aspects," and over 1,000 with "Hurricanes -- social aspects." Because of this, I call "social aspects" the magic words when searching for books in sociology and cultural anthropology. Any time you're searching for information about how people relate to each other or how they communally make sense of their experiences in the context of some activity, process, industry, etc., you'll probably want to include those magic words in your search. (If you're taking classes in other social sciences, you might be interested to know that "political aspects," "economic aspects," and "religious aspects" are also subheadings in the Library of Congress system that work as magic words in their own areas.)

"Case studies" is another magic phrase. Many ethnographic studies will include "case studies" in the subject heading. For example, these are the subject headings for Crested Kimono: Power and Love in the Japanese Business Family, by Matthews Masayuki Hamabata:

Upper class families -- Japan -- Case studies.
Family-owned business enterprises -- Japan -- Case studies.
Japan -- Social life and customs -- Case studies.
Intergenerational relations -- Japan -- Case studies.

"Social life and customs," as seen in the third subject heading, is another great magic phrase for sociology and cultural anthropology. You can tack those magic words on after a place or a group or type of people (e.g, "children," "teenage girls") to get books about the social practices in that place or of that group.