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Database Search Skills: Discover Subject Terms

Introduction to subject terms

The use of subject terms sets the Library databases apart from online search engines like Google or Bing. For each item added to a Library database, subject terms are assigned that represent the main topic or subject of the item. These subject terms allow more precise searches. Instead of looking for a term anywhere in an item, you can search for the subject of the item.

Here are some advantages of subject terms:

  • more precise searches
  • more relevant results
  • one consistent term for a topic

Turn keywords into subject terms

Part of learning how to effectively search the Library databases is figuring out the subject terms that the database uses for your topic. One way to discover useful subject terms is to think of the words that you would use to describe your topic (the keywords), then run some searches in a Library database to see what subject terms are assigned to the results.

You can think of the whole process as an upside down pyramid. You start with many keywords that describe your topic and end up with just one or two subject terms. For example, if you are trying to find articles on how well students are doing in their classes at school, some of the keywords you come up with may include:

  • Achievement     
  • Performance     
  • Success
  • School
  • Grades
  • Students

Once you have run some searches in the database using these keywords, you'll find that the subject term for how well students do in their classes at school is academic achievement.


If you'd like to learn more about finding and using subject terms, please refer to our guide: