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History Research Guide

What are keywords?

Keywords are exactly that: a series of key words that help a researcher discover what information can be found in a particular article or book. In academic library research, the keywords will help you construct a comprehensive search in a journal or database to help you find material that might be useful to you. Keyword searching is a broad form of searching that will enable you to discover if a specific term has been used in an article, an abstract, or somewhere else on the page.

Unlike subject headings, which are made up of "controlled language" used by catalogers, keywords represent natural language used in everyday life. For example, if you may be researching Latino culture and identity. One of the formal subject headings for finding information on this subject is "Hispanic Americans--Ethnic identity."  Most researchers wouldn't think to search the event using that term. Searching simply for "Latino" AND "identity" as keywords brings you directly to the books on this subject without having to know the formal subject heading.

Using Keywords in Research

Knowing the right keywords to search will help you start your search off right. Often, when students aren't finding good information - or any information at all about a topic - it is because they aren't using the correct keywords.

The best thing you can do before ever getting into a database is to think about the keywords that will best represent your topic. Write down your thesis statement and pull out the major terms in it. Then, think of as many different ways as you can to say those key terms.

Setting a list of terms and then combining them in the databases will yeild you the best results.

Tips on Using Keywords

*     Remember that you can combine keywords using the search limiters AND, OR, NOT. These will narrow or expand your search.

*     Use quotation marks around words that make a phrase. So, search for "Latin America" rather than Latin America or Latin AND America in a database. This will ensure that the database knows that you want the phrase "Latin America" and not every article with the word Latin and the word America in it!

*     Tailor your keywords to the database. Not all databases will pick up all keywords. Get your list of keywords and plug them into various databases to see whether or not they are useful for you in that database. If you go into a database with keywords and don't find anything, don't get discouraged. Take your words to a different database and see what you find there.

BUT. . .

*     Remember that some databases, particularly those that search historical documents like newspapers and magazines, may use keywords that are outdated or distasteful to contemporary researchers. For example, searching for "African American" in some newspaper databases will not turn up much material, but searching for "Negro" will, simply because of the language that is used in the article.

*     Remember also that spelling and word usage changes over time. For example, search for "Voodoo" may miss articles that use the spelling "vudu," "voudoun," "voudon," or "voudou." Likewise, when searching for a term like "religion" consider using other words such as "cosmology", "ritual", "myth" -- these words may uncover some great material that you might miss by searching only for one term.