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Ideas for Developing a List of Keywords

Before you do any searching in the catalog or a database, brainstorm a list of keywords that describe your topic.
  • Consider synonyms

    • woman vs. female

  • Consider alternate spellings

    • labor vs. labour

    • 16th century vs. sixteenth century

    • Richard III vs. Richard the Third

  • Consider broader and narrower terms

    • Great Britain vs. England

Be aware of problems you may encounter:
  • Homonyms. Remember databases and catalogs match characters, not concepts.

    • For example, the word "China": is it a country or a set of dishes? The computer can't tell!

  • Sometimes there is no universally agreed up term or phrase for a concept.

    • For example, middle ages vs. medieval, Native American vs. Indian, motion picture vs. movie vs. film.

    • And, is it World War I, the Great War, the First World War? Remember that before WWII, it can't be World War I! 

      • In primary source databases it is particularly difficult to figure out what keywords to use because, as in the bullet point about World War I, words have changed. Try looking at secondary sources to see if they mention vocabulary from the time period.

  • Avoid searching for long phrases or sentences. Extract key concepts instead.

    • For example, avoid searching "How to design and implement alcoholism treatment programs"  |  Try instead the keywords: alcoholism and treatment
  • Keep in mind that older works may use language that is considered offensive today.
The database (or catalog) you are searching may help you choose keywords, because many of them systematically assign subject headings to all works listed within them. Look for the "subject terms" or "descriptors" in the record of a book or an article. These tell you what the preferred term is in a database/catalog and can sometimes help you choose other words to search.
  • For example, this is a screen shot from Discover Local (the library's catalog). The "subjects" are the subject terms assigned to this book. If you were actually in Discover Local (the catalog) and looking at this record, clicking on a subject term, such as Japanese Americans -- Forced removal and internment, 1942-1945, would help you find more works on the same topic.

When you're ready to start searching, begin with very specific keywords, and then go broader if you can’t find anything. 
  • For example, start with a person’s name or an event, rather than just the general term Civil War. 
  • If you can’t find anything specific, start adding more specific terms to a general search: Civil War and women, for example.
Also see the "Smooth Operator" tutorial on YouTube.
​(Script for this tutorial here.)

Search Operators

These examples for combining keywords link to Discover Local (the catalog), but you can usually do the following operations in other databases. Other databases may use different symbols - check help screens to be sure.

Phrase search: use quotation marks in Discover Local (and in most other databases). For example:
Truncation / multiple character wildcard symbol: * in Discover Local (and in most other databases). For example:
  • revolution* (Will look for the words revolution, revolutions, revolutionaries, etc.)
Wildcard (single character) symbol: ? in Discover Local (and in most other databases). For example:
  • wom?n (Will look for woman, women, womyn, etc.)
Combining keywords: In Discover Local, the easiest option is to use the pull down menu to combine keywords:

screen shot of catalog search

  • AND - results will contain all words in the search box(es) / narrows your search.
  • OR - results will contain at least one of the keywords typed in the search box / broadens your search.
  • NOT - results will exclude a keyword. Use carefully or you will accidentally eliminate useful information just because it happens to mention the word you have after "NOT" / narrows your search.

  • Also see the "Smooth Operator" tutorial on YouTube. ​(Script for this tutorial here.)
  • And this page for detailed help on advanced searching in Discover Local.