Keyword vs. Subject Heading

What is the difference between Keyword and Subject searching?


KEYWORD SEARCH is a quick way to do an initial search.  For example, "Civil War" would find items on the American Civil War, but would also find items on Spain, Roman, Rhodesian, and other civil wars.

SUBJECT HEADING search uses the "controlled vocabulary" — also known as descriptor, thesaurus term, subject heading — created by the Library of Congress system. The correct entry for the American Civil War is "United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865"

Advantages of Keyword Searching

Advantages of Subject Headings

  • Computer interprets your search — by matching your search with an organized list of subjects
  • Better, more precise results because it only searches the Subject field in the record
  • Results can be messy because some of them are irrelevant to your needs
  • Risky: what you type is what you get — there is no interpretation or correcting of misspellings
  • Subject headings are not flexible because they use a "controlled" list of words
  • Requires thesaurus or index
  • No guessing allowed
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Original InfoRM material © 2011 by the Liberty University Jerry Falwell Library. This tutorial incorporates material from SBU Library Research Guide, a tutorial developed by the Stony Brook University Libraries, © 2004, from Inflite, a tutorial developed by IUPUI, © 2003, from Searchpath, a tutorial developed by the Western Michigan University Library, © 2001-2002, and from TILT, a tutorial developed by the Digital Information Literacy Office for the University of Texas System Digital Library, © 1998-2002. This material may be reproduced, distributed, or incorporated, provided that appropriate credit is given.