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
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!
Compare the subject listings in these two sources:
Now try keyword searching on the Internet:
WebCrawler is popular with
students because it features a simple search form which is easy to use.
is a multithreaded page which allows searching several sources simultaneously.
For more examples of subject and keyword searching, see The
Virtual Library on Kinnick High School's Home Page.
Go back to Constructing