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Keyword vs. Subject Searching in Library Databases: Keyword vs. Subject Heading


Keyword searches typically return high volume, low relevancy records; however they offer a flexible and convenient way of searching.  Pros and cons of keyword searches are:


  1. Using keyword(s) will retrieve items containing new terms, distinctive words, or jargon.
  2. If you do not know the appropriate subject heading, descriptor or identifier for your topic, you can conduct a keyword search first and look at a relevant item for the appropriate subject term.
  3. Boolean operators can be used in a keyword search.


  1. You may retrieve items that are not relevant to your topic, called false hits.
  2. In order to retrieve more relevant items, you need to use a variety of terms. For example, to retrieve items about careers, a keyword search must include related terms such as vocational guidance, occupations, professions, etc.

Subject Heading

Subject heading searches retrieve records that have the search term in the subject headings part of that record.  The volume of records varies widely.  Some searches will retrieve hundreds of results, but if you choose a nonexistent subject term, you will get nothing.  The relevancy of results is high, as long as you identify the correct subject for your topic.  The flexibility of your search is limited by the manner in which subjects are structured in the database that you are searching.


  1. When a list of subject terms is available, it may help you find an appropriate search term for your topic.
  2. When a list of subject terms is available, it will provide you with suggested terms for narrower, broader or related topics.
  3. Using the appropriate subject heading for a topic will retrieve all items in the database indexed under that topic.


  1. Recent terms, including new topics and jargon, may not yet be included in the list of subject terms.
  2. When a database does not provide a thesaurus or list of subject terms, the controlled vocabulary may not be obvious.