Keywords & Subject Headings

Problem: I'm not sure which words to use when I search.

Strategy: Take advantage of how a database is constructed. Start with a word that describes your topic, then see which official term has been matched to the books or articles.


  1. Do a keyword search in a database. Using one or two words to describe your topic.
  2. Find a result that looks relevant.
  3. Look at the details for the relevant result. Which subject headings or descriptors have been assigned to it?
  4. Click on one of them to do a new search for more articles/books on this exact topic

Now you know:

Different databases use their own list of controlled vocabulary terms and real humans assign the terms to the books and articles included in the database. Take notes of the subject terms that work well for each database you use. Library catalogs use the Library of Congress Subject Headings.

Watch it on YouTube
(Want to skip the intro? Start with 0:31)

Tutorials to help you evaluate sources

Dig Deeper

Some professions have their own controlled vocabularies. Here are a few: