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Selecting Keywords

Before you begin searching, brainstorm a list of keywords that describe your topic. It may be necessary to try multiple approaches to your search in order to generate the best results.

  • Consider synonyms and closely related concepts:
    • Counseling vs. therapy vs. psychotherapy
    • Teenagers vs. adolescents
    • Law vs. statute
  • Consider spelling and word variations:
    • Counseling vs. counselling
    • Labor vs. labour
    • Fifth Grade vs. Grade 5
  • Consider using broader or narrower search terms:
    • Mothers vs. parents
    • Standardized tests vs. college entrance examinations

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

  • Avoid: How to design and implement alcoholism treatment programs
  • Use: Alcoholism and treatment

If you are conducting historical research, consider how vocabulary changes over time.

Combining Keywords

How the databases and library catalog interpret your keywords depends on how you combine them.

  • AND
    • Yields only results that contain both keywords
    • Used to find resources that discuss both subjects
  • OR
    • Yields all results that contain either keyword
    • Used to include multiple topics or synonyms
  • NOT
    • Yields all results that contain the first keyword, except those that also contain the second
    • Used to exclude aspects of a topic that are not relevant

Subject Terms

You can use the databases and library catalog to find suggestions for language to use in your searches. Most databases assign subject terms to all the records they contain. These terms indicate the preferred vocabulary that individual databases use to describe topics.

Start with a keyword search. When you find a good source, view its full record and look for the "subject terms," "subject headings," or "descriptors." You can usually click subject terms to create new searches for similar books or articles.

What is the difference between a popular and a scholarly source?

If you are not familiar with scholarly publications, it can be difficult to tell the difference between scholarly and popular periodicals. There are no definitive rules for distinguishing between the two, but here are some guidelines:


Scholarly (e.g., academic journals):

  • Are written by professionals within an academic field or discipline.
  • Contain research projects, methodology, and theory.
  • Have few, if any, advertisements.
  • Use college-level or specialized vocabulary of the discipline.
  • Include articles with extensive bibliographies, footnotes, or other documentation.
  • Contain graphics that are often black & white and consist of tables, charts, and diagrams.
  • Are peer-reviewed or refereed.


Popular (e.g., magazines, newspapers):

  • Are written by journalists.
  • Contain general news articles written to inform, update, or introduce a new issue.
  • Have many full-color, full-page advertisements.
  • Use a general, non-technical vocabulary.
  • Include articles with little or no documentation.
  • Contain graphics that are often full-color pictures and illustrations.

Databases that contain both scholarly and popular sources usually allow you to restrict your search to scholarly sources only. Look for an option to display only scholarly or peer-reviewed sources.

Discover Local Search Tips

  • Use quotes to search for an exact phrase
    • "Family therapy"
    • Note: This search will exclude records with phrases like family systems therapy or family psychotherapy.
  • Use the truncation symbol * to search for variant word endings.
    • Adolescen* will find records containing the words adolescent, adolescents, adolescence, etc.
  • Use the wildcard symbol ? to replace a single character.
    • Wom?n will find woman, women, womyn, etc.
  • When searching for a specific book or periodical, omit articles (a, an, the) from the beginning of titles.