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Researching for Information in the JSCC Library on: SOCIAL PROBLEMS: Choosing Keywords - and Refining Searches

Guide to finding print and electronic resources (books, media, journals, newspapers, etc.) in the JSCC Library concerning social problems. For purposes of this guide, the topic is: HOMELESSNESS

Choosing Keywords

Once you've chosen (or been assigned) a research topic, you need to start searching for information on the topic. Before you head to the Library to look up books and articles, you need to think about how you will search for information - you need to make a research plan.

Remember - much of your research will involve searching online catalogs for books, and searching electronic databases for magazine and journal articles. You cannot just ask a computer to find information, as you would ask a person. You will need to think about your topic, and then break the topic down into words or word phrases that describe the topic - that is, you will need to think of KEYWORDS to use in searching.

Keywords are words or groups of words that you type into the search bars in online catalogs or electronic databases. When you have done this, it prompts the search engines of these resources to find books, articles, or other materials that include your keywords in the online records.

For example, if you want to find information on the topic "assisting homeless people in the United States," what keywords might you type into a search line to find information? You might try these keywords:

  • Homeless persons and United States and help
  • Assistance and homeless and United State
  • Homeless people and United States and [name of an aid organization]

How do you create keywords to be used in your searches?

  • Think about your topic, and think about words that might be used to describe the topic
  • Look in print or online dictionaries and thesauruses to find words related to your topic

Most electronic databases, which are used for finding journal, newspaper, and magazine articles, will include online thesauruses, dictionaries, or subject guides to help you find related and similar words concerning your topic or various aspects of your topic.

Refining Your Search Terms

Narrowing a topic:

Let's say you choose to write on the social problems topic of HOMELESSNESS. Homelessness is a very broad topic - that is, you can find a lot of information on this topic. So how do you go about narrowing the topic so as to avoid information overload - finding too much information for your needs?

Narrow your research topic by developing keyword combinations, which will limit the results you retrieve when searching.You do this by separating keywords or keyword phrases with connectors; that is, with AND, OR, or NOT.


  • Homeless people and mental illness (limits search results to resources about homeless people with mental health problems and issues)
  • Homelessness and drug addiction and adolescents (limits search results to resources about drug abuse and homeless teenagers)


Broadening a topic:

Let's just say you want to write a research paper on the topic "Attitudes towards homeless people in Jackson, Tennessee." You probably won't find much material on this; your topic is too narrow. If you really want to write about people's attitudes toward the homeless, you will have to broaden your topic.

How do you do this? Change your keywords to broaden your search and maybe obtain more information.


  • Homeless people and public opinion. (The topic has been expanded to include homeless people and public opinion not just within one small group [Jackson, Tennessee] but in general)
  • Homelessness and public opinion or public attitudes. (The researcher is looking for articles about public opinion OR public attitudes towards the homeless)