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Library Research E-Textbook - Student Version: Defining Keywords

Defining Keywords: Introduction & Goals


Part of planning to do research is determining which search tools will be the best ones to use.  Whether you're using Google, Wikipedia, the library catalog, or a specialized article database, keywords are really important. Keywords are how you tell the computer or database what you want, so that it will give you good results. The steps to writing keywords include: 

  • Identify your topic
  • Identify the concepts in your topic
  • Generate keywords for each concept
  • Generate broader and narrower keywords for each concept


By the end of this module, you should be able to generate a list of keywords to help you find material for your topic.

Selecting Search Tools

From Bobish & Jacobson's The Information Literacy User's Guide (pg. 32)

Part of the planning stage of research is determining the best search tools  to use.  Google and the Research Databases are often going to be the tools you'll access most during your education.  Understanding the benefits and differences between Google and the databases will help you choose the right tool for the information you need.  This is important in that it will help you to quickly find what you're looking for.

Remember, a librarian is also a helpful search tool.  They can show you very specific ways to focus your search and retrieve the most useful sources.  So make sure to stop by the Reference Desk upstairs or use our virtual chat to start your research by talking with a librarian!

View this video on generating keywords

From Bobish & Jacobson's The Information Literacy User's Guide (pg. 34)

When deciding what terms to use in a search, break down your topic into its main concepts. Don't enter an entire sentence, or a full question. Different databases and search engines process search queries in different ways, but many look for the entire phrase you enter as a complete unit, rather than the component words.

View part 2 of generating keywords

Subject Headings are terms that are assigned to items to group them. An example is cars - you could also call them autos, automobiles, or even more specific labels like SUVs or vans. But if you found out that the sources you are searching use automobiles as the Subject Heading, you wouldn't have to worry about searching each related term (Bobish & Jacobson, 42).  This next video will give you some information about using Subject Headings to advance your searches.  You can mimic the tips and tricks used in the video when searching Southworth Library's catalog and research databases.

Narrowing Your Search

Narrowing a search

Sometimes your keywords are too broad, and you find too much material. For example, if I search for the term "basketball" in the library catalog, I get 64 books. That's too much! I need to be more specific.

There are two ways to narrow a search. One is to generate more specific keywords. For instance, "National Basketball Association" is more specific than "basketball."

Another way to narrow is to add a second concept. We do this using the word AND (because many databases will otherwise presume that you want to search as a phrase, such as "National Basketball Association," which is really a single concept). I can think of lots of ways to do this with basketball, for instance: 

  • basketball and women
  • basketball and college
  • basketball and injury
The possibilities are endless!
Even in a search engine like Google, having terms you can combine thoughtfully will yield better results!
Check out this video, which will show you other ways of narrowing your search.  This link was made by Boise State University's library; however, the same tricks can be implemented using Academic Search Complete through Southworth Library's website.



Advanced Search Terms Worksheet

From Bobish & Jacobson's The Information Literacy User's Guide (pg. 35)

Try using this worksheet to think about your topic and determine search keywords.

Subject Guide

Self-Reflection Exercise

From Bobish & Jacobson's The Information Literacy User's Guide (pgs. 31-32)

As you work through your research, it is very important to be self-reflective. Try to answer the following questions as you determine the best keywords for your searches:

  • What do you really need to find?
  • Do you need to learn more about the general subject before you can identify the focus of your search?
  • How thoroughly did you develop your search strategy?
  • Did you spend enough time finding the best tools to search?
  • What is goign really well, so well that you'll want to remember to do it in the future?