Subject vs. Keyword Searching:

Understanding the Differences

In a traditional library, books and other materials are catalogued and even arranged on the shelves according to their subjects. These are usually fairly broad general topics established by an authority like the Library of Congress. Periodical indexers assign subjects to magazine and journal articles based on their content. The number of subject headings is limited, and may not reflect the complexity and variety of topics covered in a particular article. Subject searching can be difficult for students if the category is not obvious. For example, most libraries catalog the Civil War under United States--History--Civil War.

Computerized keyword searching allows you to find more information because the computer looks at words in the titles and content of a source as well as the subject. It also allows you to find more specific information, because each source yields many more keywords than subjects. The challenge in using keyword searching is to refine your topic so that the search yields an adequate number of useful citations. It is also important to understand the differences in the way searches are conducted by different search engines.

If you have an online card catalog in your school or public library, compare the number of citations obtained by entering the same word in both a subject and keyword search. If you use the name of a country like Turkey, you may be surprised to find that a keyword search also gives you information about fowl and recipes for cooking them!

Subject Searching

Compare the subject listings in these two sources:

Keyword Searching

Now try keyword searching on the Internet:
For more examples of subject and keyword searching, see The Virtual Library on Kinnick High School's Home Page.

Proceed to Boolean Logic.

Go back to Constructing the Search.