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Guide to the Research Process: 1c. Identify Keywords

This guide provides an introduction to the skills needed to conduct research.


Make a list to keep track of keywords and subject headings related to your topic. Keep them with you while you do your research.

The keywords and subject headings you use can have a profound impact on the results of your research! Using the “right” words will speed up the research process, while the “wrong” words may result in a lot of wasted time.

If the keywords or subject headings you choose initially do not give you the results you need, try the others on your list.

Keyword Searching vs. Subject Searching

Use both methods of searching but know the difference!  It will make a positive difference in your searching.

Keyword Searching is what most of us do when using Google.  You strategically think of significant words or phrases relevant to your topic and enter them in the search box. When searching the library catalog, your keywords and phrases are searched for in all of the fields of the catalog record.  The danger with using a Keyword search is that it pulls words out of context.  It justs identfies the word or words you asked for and that is it, regardless of surrounding meaning of word(s). 

Subject Searching is a type of searching that allows you to look for categories (or subject headings) instead of keywords. Subject terms are searched for only in the subject field. When the catalog record for an item is created it is assigned at least one subject heading. These subject headings are based on a pre-defined vocabulary in which all items determined to be about the same subject are given the same subject heading regardless of the term used by the author.  The challenge is that sometimes the words are not intuitive.  You may have to start with a keyword search to see what subjecting headings show up and then use those.  The upside for subject searching is that the word has a context and has meaning in that context.  Also, a resources may not have the keyword in the title of the book (or article) but the subject matter of what's in the book is what you want.  For instance, a book may be about hymns but the title of the book may be "Julibilate in Days Gone By."  A keyword search for hymns would not pull that title up but a subject search would.

Identifying Keywords and Subject Headings

Before you can begin searching for information in a print or online resource, you need to identify keywords or concepts related to your topic. Key terminology can be easily be found by scanning:

  • your initial research question,
  • encyclopedia and other articles used when conducting background research, or
  • bibliographies found at the end of books and articles.
  • resources in the electronic catalog and looking for the "official" subject headings

Subject Heading vs. Keyword Searching