Daily Archives: November 3, 2008

Subject and Keyword Searches

Today, we have a guest post from librarian Emily Bush.

Keyword vs. Subject Searching


If you panicked upon your discovery that the library databases don’t look like this:

Don’t fret. Understanding the difference between keyword and subject searches will free you from the confines of Googling.


Subject Searches:

                Use subject searches to seek information by topic. Subject searching uses controlled vocabulary, which means librarians have assigned “subject heads” to every article. Like politics and love, these subject heads aren’t always logical. For instance, the official subject head for movies is motion picture despite the outdated nature of the term. If you’re thinking, “How will I possibly know what the subject heading is?” Don’t worry – most databases will refer you to the correct subject head.


If you search pigs, the database may say “See: swine.”

                Don’t let the irrationality of librarians hold you back. There are benefits to performing subject searches (See: Advantages).


  • Subject searches return more relevant results than keyword searches.
  • Which means, you don’t have to cull through lots of junk to get to what you want
  • Subject searches = time saved


How to execute a subject search:

Think about all the different ways you can think about your topic:



What’s the picture above? It’s a cupcake, but it’s also a dessert àa cake à a cupcake à a chocolate cupcake àa chocolaty delight, etc.  If you find there’s no subject head for chocolate cupcake then you can search for cupcake and so on. Generally, try not to start too narrow.


Keyword Searching:

Try a keyword search if you have a specific or a current topic that may not have subject heads assigned to it (Examples: Twentieth Century Women’s Headwear OR High School Musical 3). Though keyword searches offer more flexibility than subject searches, make certain your results are relevant to your topic.  For instance, if you do a keyword search for aids, the database will return results on the disease, hearing aids, school aids, etc. Instead search for a combination of words like: hearing aids, children, united states.

Always start a keyword search by brainstorming for terms associated with your topic. If you’ve ever tagged videos on Youtube, you’re already halfway there. Think about all the words related to your topic and don’t be afraid to crack open a thesaurus (If you’re visually oriented try this: http://www.visuwords.com/).

So let’s say you’re writing a paper on diet fads your keywords might include: diets, fads, Atkins, South Beach, The Zone, etc. Most topics are multifaceted, so there won’t be one search you can do to pull up all the results you want. You might do a search for “diet fads” AND* Atkins then do a search for “diet fads” AND “The Zone.”*

* Most databases require you put ‘AND’ between each of your keywords or phrases.

** By putting quotes around phrases you ensure that you pull up articles with the phrase “diet fads” rather than articles that just happen to mention the words diet and fad. This will increase the likelihood of returning relevant results.