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Library Research Tutorial

Choosing a Topic

In this section of the tutorial, you will learn how to:

  • broaden or narrow a topic
  • identify keywords for a topic
  • use connectors and truncation in constructing a search
  • understand the difference between keyword, subject, author, and title searching

Watch the video below to get an idea about how choosing a topic may be a little more complicated than you think. ‚ÄčThis video was created by the North Carolina State University Library.


Narrowing a Topic

It's a good idea to choose a topic that interests you, something you'd like to know more about. For example, you could start with a topic that is very broad, like marketing. But you will find way too much information on this subject - enough to write several books. 

Instead, think of some aspect or sub-topic of the general subject of marketing that interests you. Maybe one of these?

  • Internet marketing
  • Green marketing
  • Marketing to special groups

Let's say you are interested in marketing to special groups. 
You could narrow the topic even more by adding a sub-topic:

to an age group              Marketing to adolescents

location       →                 Marketing in Japan

an additional topic    →       Marketing in magazines

It's helpful to write out your topic as a sentence or a question. Let's say the question that most interests you is:

How do advertisers market their products to teenagers?

Brainstorming Keywords in Concept Maps

Now you'll need to pick out the most important keywords for your searching. These are generally nouns.

How do advertisers market their products to teenagers?

You will want to take some time thinking about synonyms and subcategories related to the keywords in your research question. For example:

Words related to products:

  • technology
  • clothes/clothing
  • electronic cigarettes/e-cigarette/vape

Words related to teenagers:

  • adolescent/adolescents/adolescence
  • young adult
  • high school students
  • college students

You can see that plurals are included. Try to think about alternate spellings of words or abbreviations, too. 

Watch the video below for more information about creating a concept map for brainstorming ideas. If you are a visual learner, this may be a great resource. The video is from the Appalachian State University, Belk Library, Boone, NC.

Keyword Searching in Databases

The parts of each record or citation in a database are searchable. These parts are called fields. When you search by a field, the computer will look only in that field when it looks through all records in a database. It is trying to match your term. 

  • Author Search looks only in the author field
  • Title Search looks only in the title field
  • Subject Search looks only in the subject heading field
  • Date Search looks only in the date field to find the date when an item was published. 

In contrast, a keyword search looks for items anywhere in the record, including, date, author, subject, title, and description field. It is the broadest search. Also, keyword searching is flexible and allow you to combine more than one search term.

For example: teenagers OR young adults AND advertising

The video below, courtesy of Krueger Library at Winona State University, provides some helpful tips about selecting and using keywords. 

Keyword Searching Tips and Tricks

Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT) are used to connect keywords and concepts when searching. They are named after the Irish mathematician, George Boole.

Operator Example Result

social media AND teenagers


Retrieves content that contains all of your search terms

Narrows your search


hotels OR motels

color OR colour

Retrieves content that contains any of your search terms

Broadens your search

NOT vikings NOT football Excludes records containing the second search term


Truncation is like a wildcard. Added to the stem of a word, it will find that stem plus anything that comes after it. The symbol used to truncate a word depends upon the database or Web search engine you are using.  

environ*                            will return records on environment, environments, environmental. 
(* is used as the truncation symbol in MnPALS, Academic Search Premier, and many of the library databases.)

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