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Database Searching Tips: Keywords vs. Subjects

This guide teaches you common search strategies that can be utilized within various databases to help you narrow down searches and find the most relevant resources.

What are Keywords and Subject Headings?

Subject headings describe the content of each item in a database. Use these headings to find relevant items on the same topic.  Searching by subject headings (a.k.a. descriptors) is the most precise way to search article databases.

It is not easy to guess which subject headings are used in a given database. For example, the phone book's Yellow Pages use subject headings. If you look for "Movie Theatres" you will find nothing, as they are listed under the subject heading "Theatres - Movies."

Keyword searching is how you typically search web search engines.  Think of important words or phrases and type them in to get results.

 

Keywords

   vs.

Subjects

  • natural language words describing your topic - good to start with (Ex: "youth ministry",  and "church planting")
 
  • pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" words used to describe the content of each item (book, journal article) in a database (Ex: "Youth--Religious Life" and "Church Development, New")
  • more flexible to search by - can combine together in many ways
 
  • less flexible to search by - need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term
  • database looks for keywords anywhere in the record - not necessarily connected together
 
  • database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear
  • may yield too many or too few results
 
  • if too many results - also uses subheadings to focus on one aspect of the broader subject
  • may yield many irrelevant results
 
  • results usually very relevant to the topic

 

When you search a database and do not get the results you expect, Contact us for advice.

How to Find Subject Terms

To find subject headings for your topic:

  • Start with a keyword search, using words/phrases that describe your topic.
  • Browse the results; choose 2 or 3 that are relevant.
  • Look at the Subjects the items are tagged with and write them down.
  • Redo your search. Go into Advanced search and enter one of those subject terms. Remember to click the drop-down menu and limit your search to the subject field.
  • Your results will be more precise than your initial keyword search.

Other ways to find subject headings:

  • Look to see if the database has an online thesaurus to browse for subjects that match your topic. (Check the Help screens.)
  • Use the subject limiter on the left side of the results page to limit down to items containing a chosen subject heading.

Need Help? Contact Us!

  • In-person: If you are on campus, or can come to campus, feel free to ask for help at the library service desk.   
  • E-mail : Submit a question, and a librarian will get back to you as soon as possible.
  • By Phone: You can give us a call at (770) 484-1204 (ext.5756).

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