Subject vs. Keyword Searching

Learn about: When it is more appropriate to do a subject or keyword search.

Do a subject or keyword search when you do not have an author or accurate title in mind and you want to find information about something.

It is not always clear whether to start with a subject search or a keyword search. Sometimes the results of one method are better than the other.are good either way, and sometimes you do both before you finally find the information you need. The following guidelines might help you decide.

Subject Search when...

  • You want to retrieve all items in the database on your topic.
  • Looking for information on a broad topic. (i.e. weather)
  • Looking for information about something, someone, or someplace.
  • You want documents about your topic, but the topic is not explicitly expressed in the bibliographic record, except for in the subject headings assigned to them. (i.e. The book, Conversations with Richard Feynman provides a great deal of information about physics, but that term appears nowhere in the descriptive information of the item except in the subject headings.)
  • Looking for a poorly defined topic. Check the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) books for authorized subject headings that express your topic or browse the list of subject headings in the database or do a keyword search first, then look at the subject headings.
  • Looking for information that may be represented by a term that has many meanings and can occur in various contexts (i.e.. management). Browse the "subject search results" list to help narrow or define the topic.

Keyword Search when...

  • Your term is jargon, very new, or very distinctive. (i.e. skate sailing, cyberspace, phishing)
  • You do not know the exact title or author of the item.
  • A variety of terms describes the topic. (i.e. ecology of wolves in Denali National Park)
  • You need to retrieve information on two or more topics (i.e. rabbits OR hares, dogs OR canines)
  • If you don't know what the subject heading is, do a keyword first, then look at the subject headings.
  • More than one discipline is involved (i.e. statistics AND agriculture)
  • You know two or three words that appear somewhere in the title.
  • You want to exclude documents about your topic (gold AND mining NOT alaska)
This page was last modified on July 11, 2012