Searching by Author, Title, Keyword, or Subject

We have a tendency to jump into keyword searching, expecting one or two words to lead us to the best sources. This rarely happens; we usually end up with a long list of potential sources, most of which will not be useful. Instead, refer to the working bibliography you developed from your course materials or during your preliminary research, and search for sources by author or title.

Author or Title Searches

If you need only one particular source by an author, search by title if you have it, rather than by author. Most online catalogues make it easy to search or browse for titles (remember to exclude the articles “a” or “the” when entering the title). The first three or four words of a title are often enough to produce what you are looking for. You can also search for journal (periodical) titles to see if the library carries a journal you need.


When performing an author search, type the last name first and then the first initial. From the list of names that pops up, you can choose the correct one; clicking on it will produce a list of all items by that author in the library. You may find another good source from the same author.

Subject and  Keyword Searches

If you have only a topic to work with, you will need to try a subject search, or you can search by keyword. Subject searches and keyword searches are different.

Keyword searches browse all items in a database with the words you requested. Keyword searching is effective in any database, the library catalogue, a periodical index, or an internet search engine. When looking for items on a particular topic, the keyword search is easier and more effective than the subject search.

Subject searches browse the list of Library of Congress Subject Headings that are used to classify items in the library’s catalogue. The subjects range in breadth, and classify topics by discipline, subfield, geographic region, time period, and more. Once you identify one relevant source, you can find links to works classified by the same subjects. Note that if the subject term is very specific, it is less likely that there will be many other works classified by the same term.


For example:

Michael Berrill’s book The plundered seas : can the world's fish be saved?  is listed under two subject headings:

  • “Fishery”
  • “Fisheries conservation.”

These subject headings are much broader than those used to classify Carolyn Kay's book, Art and the German bourgeoisie : Alfred Lichtwark and modern painting in Hamburg, 1886-1914, which is listed under three subject headings:

  • “Art and society--Germany--Hamburg--History.” 
  • "Painting, German--Germany--Hamburg--19th century.”
  • “Painting, German--Germany--Hamburg--20th century.”


A keyword search requires a computer to look through the database for key words or phrases that describe specific concepts. Sets of concepts are formed and related to one another through the use of keywords and “logical operators” such as “and,” “or,” and “not.”

As an illustration, imagine that you are searching an online catalogue for citations on American responses to terrorism. You would first have to think of all the ways that the concepts “American” and “terrorism” could be represented by keywords. You would then have the tools to create as many different searches as necessary to yield fruitful results.

         American                                  Terrorism

         America                                    Terrorist

         United States                            Hijacking


Focused keyword searches might be      

American and terrorism

American and terrorist

America and terrorism


Or you could use “or” to indicate that the search should be for items that may have one term or the other, but not both:

                  American or America or United States or U.S.A.

You could also use “and” and “or” in the same search request, making sure to put brackets around the (or) terms:

         (American or America or United States or U.S.A.) and terrorism

There are many other ways to refine keyword searches. Librarians will guide you through the intricacies of developing an appropriate search strategy for your topic. Use the Trent University Library research preparation sheet to help you to build a list of search terms. [link]


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