Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Alabama Virtual Library Overview: Controlled Vocabulary


Technique 3: Controlled Vocabulary

Keywords are how most people search search engines like Google. Keywords are "natural language" search terms - i.e. the words a regular person would use in every day speech - and tend to be a good place to start when you don't know much about a topic.

Most databases, however, are built using something called a "controlled vocabulary", which consists of subject terms assigned by the database vendor. You have to know the controlled vocabulary used to describe your topic; however, once you know the correct subject terms, your searches will yield more precise results.

There are two ways to find subject headings:

(1) Perform a keyword search for your topic. Browse the results of your search and find two or three that are relevant. Once you open those results, look under "Subject Headings" in EBSCO databases and "Related Subjects" in Gale databases to find the controlled vocabulary used by the database to describe your topic.

EBSCO Subject Terms

Gale Related Subjects

(2) EBSCO and Gale both have thesauri, which list the subject terms used by the database to describe various topics. EBSCO's thesaurus is located under "Subject Terms" in the header and Gale's thesaurus is located under "Subject Guide" on the home search page. These are browseable and searchable.

EBSCO Subject Terms

Gale Subject Guide

Once you have a list of applicable subject terms, you can search combinations of these by plugging them into the advanced search and selecting "Subject" (Gale) or "SU Subject Terms" (EBSCO) in the select a field dropdown menu. See "Fields" for more information.