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Intro to Research for Graduate Students

To help new graduate students get started with research at the Hunter Libraries.

Library Lingo

Below is a list of jargon or lingo commonly used in libraries, databases and academia in general. For some terms, I have included images, screen shots, or links to videos or other illustrative material that may help deepen your understanding.


Abstract - An abstract is a short summary describing the main idea of a work such as an article, book or dissertation. An abstract is not the full-text of a work. Below is an example of an abstract of a dissertation from SUNY Buffalo called "Anatomy of a Woman: The Politics of medical culture in early modern drama." Notice that it is a summary of the main idea of the dissertation and not the entire text of the dissertation.

Access point - In a catalog or index, a heading that may be used to find information on an item; common access points include author, title, and assigned subject headings. 

Annotation - A note on a catalog card or bibliography, describing or evaluating the publication.

Bibliography - A list of books, articles and other materials that are related in some way, usually about a particular topic. Bibliographies can be found at the end of a paper, article, chapter or book.  Bibliographies are often included in reference sources.  Research papers must include a bibliography of the resources used or consulted. A bibliography is composed of citations. Below is an example of a bibliography from the book Fashion Under Facsism: Beyond the Black Shirt:

Boolean operator - Conjunctions AND, OR, and NOT in logical expressions; named for mathematician George Boole (1815-1864). In library usage, use of these conjunctions can make your search more effective.

Call Number - A call number is a combination of letters and numbers that is given to each item held in the library. The letters and numbers assigned to the work describe its subject matter and serves as its address on the shelf. The books in the library are arranged by call number, and not by author, title, or some other system.

For example, NA is the general area for architecture. NA735.N5 B33 2008  is the complete call number for the book New York: a historical atlas of architecture. Here is a picture of some call number labels on books:


Catalog - An electronic list of materials contained in a collection that can be searched in different ways such as author, title, subject and keyword. CUNY+ is the electronic catalog for Hunter College and all CUNY libraries. Click here for more information on locating books and other materials using the library catalog.

Circulating - library material that may be checked out by patrons.


Citation - A citation is a written reference to a specific work or portion of a work and contains information that identifies a specific journal article or book. Citation information for journal & magazine articles can be found in journal & magazine indexes and databases.  Bibliographies are comprised of citations. Visit the page "Working Backward from a Citation" for a more in-depth treatment of citations.


Database- A database is an organized collection of computer records.  By entering search terms related to a topic, you are able to retrieve information about books or articles of interest from the database.  Some examples include Academic Search Complete, JSTOR, and Humanities Full Text. For more information about databases, use the "Getting Started with Databases" tab above.

Descriptor - In electronic indexes, a subject heading assigned to an item by the indexers. Subject headings vary by database, but databases often provide a glossary of subject headings to help users.

Dictionary- An organized list of terms and their definitions. Dictionaries come in print and electronic formats, and can be general, like Webster's, or subject-specific like the Dictionary of Forensic Psychology. Dictionaries are considered reference materials. Locate dictionaries in CUNY+ by searching for a subject plus the word "dictionaries": psychology dictionaries.

Dissertation - a treatise (thesis) written by a candidate for a Ph.D. Compare with master's thesis. You can locate the abstracts (summaries) of Ph.D. dissertations using the database Dissertation Abstracts. If you would like to locate the full text of a dissertation, please talk to a librarian.

Empirical - "depending upon experience or observation alone" (from

Encyclopedia- A reference work that contains information in the form of short articles on a variety of subjects.  Some encyclopedias are specific to subjects such as art, architecture or design. Encyclopedias also come in print and electronic formats, the most famous online encyclopedia being Wikipedia. Use encyclopedias to get a general overview of a topic. Encyclopedias are a good starting point for your research.

Full-text - The complete text of an article as it appeared in its original source. To learn how to locate the full text of articles, visit the "Finding the Full Text" tab above. When conducting database searches, look for one of the following icons, which mean that a given article is available full text in the database you are searching:


Glossary -  a list of terms in a special subject, field, or area of usage, with accompanying definitions.  Similar to a dictionary but usually shorter in length and more specific to a subject.  This "Library Lingo" page is an example of a glossary. Below is another example from Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions:


Holdings - The total stock of materials owned by a library, usually listed in the catalog.  The word “holdings” has the same meaning as “library collection.” In CUNY+, after executing a search you will see the following on the right-hand side of the screen. Whatever library name is listed under "Holdings" is who has a copy of the item in question:

Index - An index is a guide to the contents of a file, document, or a group of documents. An index is used to point to the contents of something.  These are two different types of indexes:

Journal & Magazine Index - A database that describes the contents of journals & magazine and provides enough information for you to locate an article in a journal or magazine. Some indexes provide abstracts of articles. Most indexes will not provide you with the full-text of an article. Examples of electronic indexes include Dissertation Abstracts and National Newspaper Index. You can filter Hunter's list of databases down to only indexes by using the drop-down "Browse by type" menu:


Index in a Book - Usually found at the back of a book, this type of index describes and points to the contents of the book. The location will usually be given as page number in the book. So if you were looking for information on "basket weaves" in this book, it would be found on pages 564-565:


Manuscript -1. A work written by hand (not printed on a press). 2. In Archives, archival material arranged and preserved intact.

Microfiche - a small sheet (4" x 6") containing microfilmed images of pages, read with a microfilm reader. Many pages of text fit onto a single fiche, and their major advantage is in saving shelf space.

Microfilm - microphotographs of printed material, on a reel of cellulose film, viewed using a microfilm reader/printer. Items in awkward or frail formats (such as newsprint) and popular magazines subject to damage from heavy use are often purchased in microfilm format rather than being bound between hard covers.


Monograph - A book, usually a single volume dealing with a single subject.

Multidisciplinary -  combining information from more than one subject area; dealing with more than one area of study.  Example: a database that includes information on art, current events, sociology, and education such as ProQuest. Sometimes referred to as "interdisciplinary" or "cross-disciplinary."

Peer-review - from, a process by which something proposed (as for research or publication) is evaluated by a group of experts in the appropriate field. The term "peer-reviewed" is often used interchangeably with scholarly, academic, or refereed. Peer-reviewed or refereed journals are journals that require articles to go through the peer-review process prior to being published. This is different from a magazine you would get from a newsstand. Most databases will allow you to limit a search to retrieve only peer-reviewed sources:

Periodical - A magazine, journal, newspaper, or annual (yearly) publication which is published at regular intervals, as opposed to a book which is published only once. Also called serials.

Primary Source - An original object or document, results of a scientific study, original research or creative work that is factual and not interpretive. For very clear definitions and examples from both the Humanities and the Sciences, click here. You can also watch a short video which illustrates the differences between primary and secondary sources related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy - see the sidebar at the right.

Refereed -see Peer-review above.

Reference Materials - Encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, and more. Some reference material is available electronically, while some is only available in print.  Reference materials are excellent places to begin your research. Print reference materials can be located on the 4th floor of the Wexler Library and they do no circulate (meaning you can't check them out). However, we have a number of reference books available electronically that can be located by searching in CUNY+ or a reference database such as Gale Virtual Reference Library.


Scholarly Journal - see "Peer-review" above. Also watch the short "Scholarly vs. Popular" video in the right sidebar.


Secondary Source - an interpretive work that analyzes and interprets primary sources. Analytical and interpretive. Again, see this link for examples and definitions of primary and secondary sources in the humanities and sciences.


Thesis - often refers to the treatises written by candidates for a Master's Degree, as distinct from doctoral dissertations. The Wexler Library has a collection of theses written by Hunter College students. They are cataloged in CUNY+ (search for a subject plus the word thesis: "theater thesis") and are located in Special Collections on the 2nd Floor of the library.

Some definitions adapted from the Univesrity of Utah, Marriot Library resources, "Glossary of Common Library Terms." Web page has since been removed.