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Subject & Keyword

Keyword and Subject Searching are two useful ways to find information about a topic.


With most databases, there are two ways to search for items on a particular topic: keyword or subject. Both types of searching are important in the research process because they can get you to a wider range of information than just using one method. Check the search tool you are using to see which choice is the default method. Choose the method that will work best for your needs.


A keyword search retrieves the search word(s) or phrases (see Exact Phrase Searching) from the title, abstract, and subject/descriptor. In the example below, the search terms


"new deal" and roosevelt


are pulled from the title and the abstract. The search screen for EBSCO databases defaults to keyword search. The subject search icon at the top of the search screen must be selected to do a subject search.


Most databases share usage techniques even though the interface looks different.


Biography, Dec2001, Vol. 5 Issue 12, p80, 1p, 1c

Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Abstract: Profiles United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
chosen as one of 'Biography' magazine's 40 American Classics.
Fulfillment of the promise for a New Deal; Terms served as president;
Marriage to Eleanor.

Keyword searching
on the Web and other full-text databases, however, can be even broader because the search words or phrases are being pulled from the complete text of articles and documents. This is the biggest disadvantage of keyword searching.





A subject search involves searching only in the subject field of the database. Your library catalog has subject headings assigned to each item indexed.


The importance of knowing the correct subject heading to use is illustrated by this example.

To find this book on the people of North Africa, the subject heading Ethnology--Africa, North must be used.


In most cases it is more productive to do a keyword search in your school library catalog.

Comparison at a Glance

Keyword Searching

Subject Searching

searches in any number of fields and/or the full text of documents searches only in the subject/descriptor field

any significant words/phrases can be considered keywords

search terms must come from the database's thesaurus

number of items retrieved potentially large on the Web

number of items retrieved potentially smaller

may retrieve irrelevant items
high degree of relevancy

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