Often, research success can come down to finding the right keywords to use in your search. A keyword is a topic, theme, or subject used to categorize a text. Keywords are also the words you use when doing a search for relevant work on a library database or any web browser.

“Subject headings” are the standardized keywords that librarians use to catalog and categorize a book or article so that you can find other items on the same topic.

Finding good keywords is always a process of trial and error. You want to find keywords that give you enough sources to evaluate without being so general that you have mountains of material to sift through.

Sometimes it’s a matter of figuring out the standardized language that is used by libraries all over the country. If you’re looking for general information on World War II, you might try all of the following:

  • WWII
  • Second World War
  • World War Two
  • World War, 1942-1945

Sometimes, rather than finding a particular term used by librarians, you need to try synonyms for the subject you are researching. If you were trying to find texts about 14-year-olds you might try:

  • Adolescents
  • Teenagers
  • High School Students
  • Teens

Usually, once you find a term that works (Adolescents) you’re going to need to find other terms to make your search more specific (Adolescent Boys, or Adolescent Boys in South Korea). While web browsers sometimes let you type in a sentence like “Give me resources on adolescent boys in South Korea”” library databases are calibrated for more specific types of searching.

Most library databases, and some web browsers, have “advanced search” options, which help you to use things called “Boolean” search terms. You probably already use these terms when you want to search for a specific combination of words, without even realizing they have a fancy name. The basic principle is that three basic words—AND, OR, NOT—in combination with quotation marks around specific phrases (“swimming pool”) can help focus the way web-based databases sift through material for you.

If you wanted information on President Obama’s 2014 speech at the University of Michigan, you would type this into the search bar:

Obama AND “University of Michigan” AND 2014

Or if you really didn’t want to know about Obama’s 2014 speech you would search for this:

Obama AND “University of Michigan” NOT 2014


Using keywords is not an exact science. If you chat with a reference librarian, chances are that the librarian will try a bunch of different searches, based on years of experience, to see what works. Over time you start to get a better sense of how libraries catalog things (i.e. World War, 1942-1945, not WWII) but, still, it’s always a process of trial and error.

Keywords are useful in helping you to find relevant texts, and, as we discuss in the next section, they can also help you identify whether a source might be useful.