How do I think of keywords to search?

Using library search tools can feel very different than using Google and other familiar search tools in that you search with keywords and phrases rather than whole questions. Here are a few strategies for getting the best results:

Start with Your Topic or Question

If you are not sure which keywords are relevant to your topic, it can help to write out a topic statement or a research question. The select the most important words and, if necessary, turn them into nouns.

Example question: How does using the library help students do better in college courses?
Main concepts: 
  • using the library → library use
  • students
  • do better in courses → academic success
  • college

Notice that two of the ideas from the question need to be translated into noun phrases before they will make good keywords.

Background Research

Ask yourself the 5W questions (who, what, when, where, why) about your topic. Depending on your topic, some Ws may have more than one answer, and others may not have any. You may need to do a little background research online or in a reference book and make a list of important concepts, people, places, events, and time periods related to your topic.

Synonyms and Related Terms

Synonyms are words that have the same meaning as your keywords. Because individual authors, journal publishers, and databases may describe the same concept in different ways, you may want to add some of these terms to your keyword list. 

  • library use → studying, research, consultation, borrowing
  • students → first-year students, transfer students, graduate students, learners, researchers
  • academic success → knowledge transfer, retention, grades
  • college → higher education, university, postsecondary

If you have keywords that are extremely specific, think of keywords that describe broader categories.

Example: tibial plateau fracture → knee injury

On the other hand, if your keyword is extremely broad, think of more specific relevant terms that fall within that category.

Example: research → clinical trial


When you are using a term that is made up of more than one word, it may be necessary to enter the term into your search as a phrase. The most common way of doing this is to surround the term with quotation marks. For example: "higher education." This tells the catalog, database, or search engine that you are interested in only the results where these words appear together and in the same order.

Ask Us

If you have more questions about keywords for your topic or in your academic discipline, please contact the library.