WRTG: Objects & Products Research


IC Library Print & Media Resources

Finding Things: Subject Searches

     Thesaurus Thinking: The popular meaning of "thesaurus" is a collection of synonyms, as in Roget's Thesaurus.  But in Libraries and Information Science a thesaurus can be more complex, referring to the hierarchical mapping of related concepts--in particular the elaboration of terms through the broader categories to which they belong and the narrower sub-categories that belong to them.  For example, if you begin with the concept of a pen, you could look at the broader categories of writing implements, paper, ink and the evolution of writing itself, as well as at particular kinds or brands of pen: steel pens, fountain pens, ballpoint pens, Bic Stics.
     Thesaurus thinking is an excellent habit to cultivate in pursuing any research project, but for one focusing on an object or product it is essential. And you'll find that the Subject Headings used in library catalogs and many databases of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles can assist you in identifying broader categories for your topic, at which level much of the best information may occur.  You would probably be able to find only a handful of articles on the Bic Stic, but many more articles on the impact of the ball point pen in the 20th century, and whole books on the evolution of writing implements that may address ballpoint pens in this larger context.
 A few basic examples: 
        In the above examples I have used simple Subject Headings, but in researching the cultural signficance of an object or product you will want to take advantage of any standard subheadings that may be available.  For instance, for Automobiles you will also find  Automobiles--Economic aspectsAutomobiles--Environmental aspectsAutomobiles--History, and  Automobiles--Social aspects.  And these Subject Headings may be further subdivided by location-- -Automobiles--Social aspects--United States--and time period-- Automobiles--Social aspects--United States--History--20th century.

     Finally, there are objects created or adapted to function primarily as works of art or devotion:
Art objects
Found objects (Art)
    and objects that are out of this world:
Unidentified flying objects

Going Even Wider: Subject Searches

     The best Subject Headings for research on objects and what they say about either individuals or cultures will mostly depend on the object in question--simple tools, complex machines, domestic furnishings, articles of clothing, implements and appliances: the list is almost endless.  But below are some broad Headings that may be of use.

Material culture
Material culture--History
Material culture--Social aspects
Material culture--United States
Technology and civilization 
Technology--Social aspects
Technological innovations
Diffusion of innovations
Property--Psychological aspects
Property--Social aspects
Personal belongings
Materialism--United States
Materialism--Social aspects--United States

Consumers' preferences
Consumers--United States
Consumers--United States--History
Consumption (Economics)
Consumption (Economics)--Environmental aspects
Consumption (Economics)--History
Consumption (Economics)--Moral and ethical aspects
Consumption (Economics)--Social aspects  
Consumption (Economics)--Social aspects--United States
Consumption (Economics)--United States
Brand name products
Branding (Marketing)
Brand choice
Lifestyles--United States

Industrial design
Product design
Manufacturing processes

     Many objects and products are popular--or not--because of changing trends in popular culture.  So depending on the item you've chosen, you might want to consult this Subject Heading, often subdivided by place and time:
Popular culture--United States

     Likewise, a standard subheading applied to works that might be concerned with the material culture of a place and time is "--Social life and customs." So if the object or product you've chosen is associated with a particular country and possibly with a particular time, enter a Subject search on the name of the country followed by the subheading --Social life and customs. For example,
United States--Social life and customs--1775-1783
United States--Social life and customs--1865-1918
United States--Social life and customs--1918-1945
United States--Social life and customs--1945-1970
United States--Social life and customs--1971-

     Finally, so many of us spend so much of our time looking at and manipulating virtual objects, it might be interesting to consider virtual reality in this context:
Virtual reality
Virtual reality--Social aspects

Obscure Objects of Desire

Note: The universe of objects and products is vast and so is the literature. An academic library like IC's does not need most of these resources to support its curriculum, so it may be useful to discover if books on your topic exist elsewhere and may be requested via interlibrary loan. (Since books must be sent through the mail, you must budget 1-2 weeks.)

      WorldCat via FirstSearch is a "union catalog" that allows you to search the holdings of over 10,000 libraries from accross the country and around the world: over 41 million items. Check WorldCat to discover what the entire universe of possible resources looks like for your topic.
     Note that upon opening any record there will be an "ILL Order" link that gives you direct entry into IC's interlibrary loan form (when you sign in--IC e-mail user name/password--the form will already be populated with both item identification data and your personal contact info).
User Advisory:
At the search interface begain by scrolling down and changing the default "Rank by" setting to "Date"--this will display your retrievals in reverse chronological order with the newest first.
This is such a large database that you should set a "Limit Type" to "Books" or "Visual Materials" or whatever you are specifically interested in finding.
When using a Subject search--advisable in such a large database--choose the looser "Subject" search rather than "Subject Phrase"--which requires an often frustrating exactitude.

IC Library Databases (Articles)

Recommended Databases

     General OneFile : is the most user-friendly of our comprehensive databases, covering almost any topic from a wide range of disciplinary angles and offering lots of full text.  Use the default Subject search to find the best subject heading for your topic (and when you find a good one be sure to look at the "Related Subjects" to see if there's something even better).  Note: The default Subject search here is excellent for researching objects--chairs, door knobs, tractors, neckties, potato chips, traffic signals, etc.  Searching name brand products can be trickier: Ipods will get you nothing, but Apple Ipods will work; mustangs will get you feral horses but Ford Mustang will get you the car.  But if you can find a heading for your object or product here, the "subheadings" (see next paragraph) may be very helpful.
     When you find a subject heading, open the "Subdivisions" link below it.  Most General OneFile subject searchs produce very large retrievals and the "subdivisions" help you narrow your search to a particular aspect: "Design and Construction," "Economic aspects," "Environmental aspects," "Forecasts and Trends," "History," "Innovations," Marketing," "Materials," and  "Social aspects," to name only a few.

      If the best available subdivision is still too broad, open it and add your own Keywords in the "Search within these results" slot at the upper left.
     User Advisory: When first viewing your retrievals in General OneFile, note that you are seeing only the "Magazines" (popular articles) and must click on the tabs for "Academic Journals" (scholarly articles) or "News" (newspaper articles) to see those results.

      Academic Search Premier  Comprehensive subject coverage with considerable full text.  Note that there is a “Subject Terms” link just above the search boxes, allowing you to search the index of Subject Headings--often a good first stop for more efficient Subject searching whereby you are guaranteed that your topic is indeed a main subject of the articles retrieved.  Note: This database has an outstanding range of Subject Headings under "Subject Terms"--Toothbrushes, Backhoes, Belts, Forks, Swimming Pools, Grenade Launchers--which you can then "explode" (doubleclick) for related terms.  The Subject terms also include named products.
    Also note that for the main search slots you can open the menu of search fields and choose "Company entity" to focus on a manufacturer.
     User Advisory: For any retrieved set of articles, there will be a box displayed on the left that will limit the articles to “Scholarly” journals—just check the box and click the “Update Results” button below.

     ProQuest Research Library : is another comprehensive database with substantial full text.  Use the "Thesaurus" (above the search slots) to preview what Subject Headings are available.  Subect searching can be a more efficient way to search than with only Keywords, since it guarantees that the articles retrieved actually be about the Subject--not just use a particular word. Note: ProQuest has a limited Subject vocabulary, but it's worth checking the "Theasurus," where you'll find some object categories such as Beds, Microwave ovens, and Backpacks.  Also open the menu of search fields and see that there are dedicated fields for searching both Products and Companies.
     Also Note that to the right of your search results you can limit your retrieval by "Source Type" (including Magazines, Newspapers, Scholarly Journals),  "Document Type," (including Cover Story, Editorial, Interview, and Review), "Document Feature" (including Photographs, Illustrations), and "Location."
     Above each set of articles you retrieve ProQuest will display related Subject searches to help either broaden or narrow your focus.
     User Advisory: ProQuest is fussy about entering Subject searches in the designated search slot. If your subject is a person, enter the name--last name first--in the "Person" slot; if a named group of any kind--Microsoft, the Catholic Church, Radiohead, the New York Mets--enter it in "Co/Org"; if a place enter it in "Location." 

     Business Source Premier (Special Business Interface) : An Ebsco database like Academic Search Premier above, but with a more limited range of Subject Headings--neither forks nor grenade launchers will work as Subjects here.  But if your object is a product, this could be an important resource.  Note that the fields you can select to search include one for "Reviews & Products" and one for "Company Entity."  Note: For particular products, I've found the default keyword search to be too broad, but the Reviews & Products field too narrow.  A nice compromise is to search the product name in the Abstract field, which helps assure the prominence of the product in the article.

     SocINDEX with Full Text : Yet another Ebsco database, and as bthe name implies, excellent for social issues. Click on the "Subject Terms" link above the search slots to find which Subject Headings will work here. Double click any Heading for a list of broader, narower, and related Subject Terms.  The Subject vocabulary here is not as wide-ranging as Academic Search Premier (above), but it's still worth checking for an object category: Cell Phones, Clothing.  Just be sure to try some variatons: "Cars" or "Automobiles" will get you nothing, but "Motor Vehicles" will work. And note that like the two databases above, there are dedicated search fields for "Reviews & Products" and "Company Entity."  

      JSTOR : covers a wide range of scholarly journals in most disciiplines, always beginning with the first issue of each one.  This provides 100% full text access to articles from not only the first half of the 20th century but even the second half of the 19th.  Be aware, however, that at the other end of the date range articles don't appear in JSTOR until at least 2-3 years after publication. 
     JSTOR offers only a Keyword search of its complete full text, so retrievals are large, but the relevancy ranking does a good job of putting the strongest matches on the first few pages.  This relevancy ranking does not weigh date, however, and will display a mix of articles written decades apart.  So if your topic is time sensitive, be alert to publication dates.
     This is an excellent database for archeology, anthropology, history, and sociology, so it does a good job with categories of objects that have been around for a while: chairs, spoons, hats, knives, etc.
     User Advisory: The academic journals covered here feature numerous book reviews, so it's a good idea to tic the "Article" limit below the search slots so you won't be overwhelmed by book reviews on your topic.  
     Also note the "Date Range" limit, which in a database with an archive this deep can be very useful.

     America: History and Life : This database is good for historical research on the material culture of America and it's the only one that allows you to set a "Historical Period" limit (below the search slots on the left), so you can isolate a particular time period.  But: be aware that setting a Period limit of 1850-1900 will also retrieve any Period that contains those 50 years, so, for instance, you will also retrieve articles with the time scope of 1825 to 1925.
     Also be sure to set the "Document Type" limit to "Article" to weed out all the many, many book reviews that will otherwise clot your search for articles.
     Having set the Period and Article limits, a good way to begin with this database is to open "Indexes" above the search slots and select the "Subject Terms" index, where you can check to see if there is a good Subject Heading for your topic.
     There's a good deal of full text here, but where there isn't be sure to use the "Find Full Text" links below citations to see if the full text can be supplied by another of IC's databases.

     New York Times (1851-2009)  gives access to the full text of the New York Times 1851-2006.  If certain objects or products were likely to be reported on during this period--because of new technolgy, fashion, sudden popularity, or rapid disappearance--this database can target contemporary opinion.  Reset the default search of "citation and document text" to "citation and abstract" (since this is a Keyword search of 100% full text, you are likely to generate too many passing mentions of your search terms if you search all the text; first try the more focused "citation and abstract" search and only broaden it to "document text" if you retrieve too few hits). 
     Use the "date range" limits to target the primary sources available here--contemporary/eyewitness reports. Without a date range limit you may retrieve hundreds of articles written decades after the object or products became commonplace. 
     User Advisory: when searching for materials from earlier eras, be aware that language changes over time. 

     ScienceDirect : A good resource for the technology, manufacture and materials of objects and products.  And the "Science" of the title includes the social sciences, so there may also be articles on the sociology or cultural impact of an object.  Because it’s a large database with a great deal of full text, the absence of Subject searching means that your Keyword searches will often retrieve large sets of articles, many of which mention but don’t discuss your search term(s). One way around this is to limit your initial search to the “Abstract Title Keyword” field. Once you have found an article that sounds on-target, click the “Related Articles” link beneath the citation This will open a range of articles on the same topic.
     User Advisory: Uncheck "All books" is recommended if you're looking for articles.  And if you open the "Dates" drop-down menu you'll find a much wider range of options than the default 10 year span.

     PsycINFO :  The American Psychological Association use their own Subject vocabulary, which you can browse in the "Thesaurus," but it's not really geared to searching on categories of objects or particular products.  And yet you'll find a fair amount of psychological literature on products, technology, and even everyday objects.  It's best to just wade in with keyword searches, but be alert to the Subject headings assigned to any useful articles you retrieve, which you can then run as Subject searches.
     PsycINFO deals only with scholarly literature, much of it assuming a graduate-level understanding of the discipline.  But among these you may find interesting, accessible articles on your topic.  
     User Advisory: If what you're searching for are "journal articles only" in "English," it's a good idea to check those boxes (below the search slots).

Contact Us

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Dr. Brian Saunders

Humanities Librarian
(607) 274-1198

Search Argos

Web Resources

Selected Web Sites

Note: What Web resources exist to support your research will depend almost entirely on the object or product you select.  Below are a handful of sites that offer information on a range of items.

  • How Products Are Made: Quite a nifty site providing detailed information on a wide range of goods, from ironing boards to armoured trucks.
  • How It's Made: From the Science Channel, 87 clips from the programs on a wide range of products.
  • Household Products Database: from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this site allows you to research a wide range of domestic products--personal care, home/office, auto, inside the home, etc. The main focus is on ingredients/materials and their health effects.
  • howstuffworks.com: This site becomes ever more of a shopping adjunct and entertainment destination, but there's still a core of articles on how categories of objects work--microwave ovens, cell phones--and particular products--Ipods, Viagra.
  • Story of Stuff Project: A site dedicated to questioning consumerism and promoting sustainable alternatives.  A series of videos--including the original "Story of Stuff"--are available under "Movies."
  • Market Research: By Sector: A wide range of articles on products, marketing, and consumer behavior, conveniently arranged by product category: automotive, computers, entertainment, food, housing, lifestyle, sport, etc.

Web Directories

    Web Directories differ from search engines like Google in that all the online resources have been selected and annotated by editors, thereby promising a much higher degree of quality control.  
  • Open Directory Project: Business: The middle group of categories here could be useful, with headings such as "Consumer Goods," "Electronics," "Construction," "Industrial Goods," "Textiles," "Food Products," and "Materials."

Seeing Things

  • Wikimedia: Access to over 12,000,000 images.  Note the "Content by Topic" option on the lower right. In the box to the right of this, click on the + sign in front of "categories."  This will allow you to group images by brand, by company, by material, and by period.
  • ARTstor (IC Library database--log-in required): A database of more than 1,000,000 digital images. Use the "advanced search" and, if appropriate, chose a geographic limit--North America, for example.  Then choose a "classification" of objects.  For material culture images you might check "decorative arts & utilitarian objects," "fashion, costume & jewelry," and "science, technology & industry."  Note that you can also enter any date range if you want to target objects from a historical period.  Finally, use the keyword search slots to identify a kind of object.
  • Finding Visuals: This is a short guide I created for IC Theatre students who often need to find images of the material culture of a certain time and place for the mounting of stage productions.

Citation Help


MLA is the citation style used by most disciplines in the Humanities. The guides below use the most recent 2008/9 standards.