Skip to Main Content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 200D: Family in History

Guide to using the library for historical research.

Library Catalogs

When researching in a library, especially a research library, its catalog is probably the most important tool you will use, and one with which you should familiarize yourself as quickly as possible. Even if you think you have never used the Library Catalog here, you probably have and just do not realize it, since "Easy Search", the Library's federated search engine, sends all queries to the Library Catalog along with several other online research tools.

A library catalog is a database of records that identify and describe resources owned by the library. Most of these records describe published resources like books. Use the catalog to find both print sources and digitized sources in the Library's collections.

Many research libraries today will dress their catalogs up with fancy interfaces, making the catalogs appear to have far greater functionality than they actually do. You will be a much better user of library catalogs if you understand the purpose and functions of library catalogs, which are in fact very basic:

  1. The catalog should be an efficient instrument for ascertaining:
    • Whether the library owns a particular work specified by its title;
    • Whether the library owns a particular work specified by its author;
    • Which works by a particular author are in the library;
    • Which editions of a particular work are in the library.1
  2. The catalog should collocate records for works on a common subject under a single, standardized heading.

Digitization of library catalogs has made it possible to perform keyword searches on the records in the catalog. Aside from this innovation, and a few other conveniences, the library catalogs of today are essentially identical (in function) to library catalogs created a hundred years ago.

If the Library does not have the book you need, or else the book you need is charged, then you should next search the:

After you have explored the books available to you here at the University of Illinois, and also at other I-Share libraries, you will want to expand your search using:

If you find a book in WorldCat that you would like to use for your research, you can request it through:

Why Bother with Subject Headings?

It’s true that you can find sources on a topic by doing keyword searches. But if you limit yourself to keyword searching, you are likely to miss important material on your topic that uses other terms. If you only need two or three books, you can probably find what you need by doing keyword searches, but if you are doing historical research, you can’t afford to miss critical material on your topic. For a comprehensive subject search, search with subject headings as well as keywords.

A good way to identify subject headings for a topic is to do a keyword search in the online catalog using terms you think describe the topic and try to identify a few relevant books. Look at the full record for those books to see what subject headings were used, then do another search on those headings.

As a rule of thumb, use fairly broad headings, as well as the specific ones that describe your topic, in order to make sure you haven't inadvertently eliminated relevant material that is contained within works of larger scope. Most likely you will find multiple headings to describe your topic, and you should use all of them. You can narrow your search in the online catalog by combining subject headings (as a phrase) with keywords, using the “Advanced Search” option.

Subject headings can only be browsed in the:

Some Example Subject Headings

  • Families --United States --History --20th century.
  • Families --United States --Statistics.
  • Families --Massachusetts.
  • Family policy --History.
  • Family --History.
  • Family --History --Periodicals.
  • African American families.
  • African American families --History.
  • African American families --History --Sources.
  • African American families --Illinois.
  • African American families --Illinois --Chicago.
  • African American families --Illinois --Social conditions.
  • African American children --Southern States --Social conditions --19th century.
  • Child slaves --Southern States --Social conditions --19th century.
  • Asian American families.
  • Asian American families --Case studies.
  • Chinese American families.
  • Hispanic American families.
  • Rural families.
  • Rural families --Illinois --Winnebago County --Diaries.
  • Gay parents --United States --History.
  • Marriage --History.
  • Marriage-- United States --History.
  • Marriage law --United States.
  • Divorce --History.
  • Divorce --Biblical teaching --Early works to 1800.
  • Divorce --Early works to 1800.
  • Divorce --Fiction.
  • Divorce --Law and legislation.
  • Family violence.
  • Family violence --Law and legislation.
  • Family violence --Law and legislation --History.
  • Marital violence --Massachusetts --Boston --Case studies.
  • Conjugal violence --Illinois.
  • Child abuse --Massachusetts --Boston --Case studies.
  • Wife abuse --Massachusetts --Boston --Case studies.
  • Incest --Massachusetts --Boston --Case studies.
  • Polygamy --United States --History.
  • Motherhood.
  • Fatherhood.
  • Domestic relations --United States --History.
  • Father and child.
  • Parent and child.
  • Parenting.
  • Men --Conduct of life.
  • Men --Conduct of life --Early works to 1800.
  • Men --Conduct of life --Periodicals.
  • Women --Conduct of life.
  • Women --Conduct of life --Early works to 1800.
  • Women --Conduct of life --Periodicals.
  • Women --Conduct of life --Periodicals --Early works to 1800.
  • Wives --Sermons.
  • Wives --Sermons --Early works to 1800.
  • Illegitimate children.
  • Children --History.
  • Child welfare --History.
  • Children's rights --United States --History.
  • Child rearing --History.
  • Children --Government policy.
  • Home economics.
  • Home economics --Bibliography.
  • Home economics --Curricula.
  • Home economics --Handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • Home economics --Periodicals.
  • Households.
  • Work and family --United States.
  • Communal living.
  • Communal living --California.

Searching for Primary Sources in the Online Catalog

You can find published primary sources in the online catalog.

To find published primary sources in library catalogs, try these strategies:

-Search by date of publication (to find sources that were published during the time period you're researching --you can also use this strategy in full-text digital collections such as Proquest Historical Newspapers)

-Use the library catalog's advanced search option, and include one or more of these Library of Congress subject headings in your search:

  • correspondence

  • sources

  • diaries

  • personal narratives

  • interviews

  • speeches

  • documents

  • archives

  • manuscripts

  • case studies

  • early works to 1800

You can find unpublished primary sources held by archives and museums using:

You can find "archival material"  (especially microfilm facsimiles of primary source materials) in:

Shelf Browsing

Shelf browsing has long been an important research technique for historians. The books and periodicals in the Library's collection are classified, and that classification number forms part of each book's call number (see Box 1 above). A classification number identifies the main subject of a book or periodical. The principal classification system used by the UIUC Library is Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), with which you are likely familiar from any research you might have done in your high school library or your local public library. DDC uses numbers to articulate subject connections between books that are not easily linked through subject headings.

For example, books on the relationship between parents and children in general, and books more specifically on the relationship between fathers and children, or mothers and children, will all be shelved near each other:

  • 306.874
  • 306.8742
  • 306.8743

respectively, despite the fact that, in our Online Catalog, there are thousands of subject headings separating each of these closely related subjects.

Because so much of the Library's collection has been transferred to offsite storage, shelf-browsing is no longer as productive as it once was (but still worth trying, especially if you've not yet had the experience of using the book stacks at a major research library). You can, however, browse the shelf list in the "Classic Catalog" (see below for link). If you discover a book in the catalog that appears relevant, simply click on its hyperlinked call number, and you will be taken to a virtual shelf list. Remember to browse both forward and backward.

Digitized Book Collections


1. International Federation of Library Associations, Statement of Principles: Adopted at the International Conference on Cataloguing Principles, Paris, October 1961, ed. Eva Verona, Definitive ed. (London: International Federation of Library Associations Committee on Cataloguing, 1971), xiii.