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Western Civilization

Introduction to research in Western Civilization

Brainstorming Topics and Keywords

Concept Maps

Concept maps are great brainstorming tools for thinking about your topic and related concepts. They can also be great starting points for generating keywords that you will need when searching in the library databases. 

To make a concept map for your topic: 

  1. Start with the main topic in the center. 

  1. Add related concepts in bubbles, using lines to connect them to each other and to the main topic. 

Tools for Concept Mapping

Brainstorming Keywords

Start with the main ideas or concepts for your topic. For each important word/phrase, come up with similar or related terms such as: 

  • Synonyms (different word, same meaning) 

  • Narrower terms (more specific) 

  • Broader terms (less specific) 

  • Everyday language (words the average person would use to describe something) 

  • Formal or academic language (words that experts in a subject/discipline would use to describe something) 

Add "quotation marks" around phrases. This tells the database or search engine to treat the phrase as one term (rather than searching for each word individually).

Tip: After you start searching, add any additional keywords or phrases that you come across in your results.

Suggested Keywords

Remember: you may need to use the language that was common at the time, which may be different from words we generally prefer now. For example, "homosexual" was more commonly used in the past than "gay", disabled people were likely described as "crippled", etc.

  • Time Periods, such as "Renaissance" or "Ancient Greece"
  • Dates or Date Ranges, such as 1880-1887
  • Names of specific battles, such as "Siege of Yorktown"
  • Names of specific wars, such as "World War II"
  • Names of specific events, such as "Massacre at Wounded Knee"
  • Names of specific movements, such as "Women's Suffrage"
  • Demographics such as:
    • Class ("working class", "slaves", "serfs", "lords")
    • Age ("young men", "children")
    • Nationality ("French", "English")
    • Race/Ethnicity ("Black" or "African", "Jewish", "Egyptian")
    • Gender ("women")
    • Sexuality ("homosexual")
    • Ability/Disability ("disabled", "crippled", "injured")

Tips for Database Searching

Phrases as Keywords

Add "quotation marks" around phrases. This tells the database (or search engine such as Google) to treat the phrase as one term (rather than searching for each word individually).

Advanced Search

Using the "Advanced Search" option allows you to put each keyword in its own search box, which makes it easier to change out keywords for synonyms, narrower or broader terms, etc. It also gives options for limiting your search results by date, source type, and others.


Use database search tools AND, OR, and NOT (as drop downs in Advanced Search or between keywords in the search bar):

  • AND = will only show results that include BOTH terms

  • OR = will show results if they have at least one of the terms

  • NOT = will exclude results that use that term

Subject Terms

Subject terms (also called "subjects" or "controlled vocabulary") are the database's "official" keywords assigned to topics. When searching with subjects, your results will most likely be more precise and relevant. You can find subject terms in a few places:

  • Database record for an article - these are often hyperlinked
  • Thesaurus / Subject Terms - databases have a searchable list of all subject terms (often available from the Advanced Search page or in the menu bar at the top)


Limits can be added using Advanced Search or from the search results page. Databases usually include options to limit by:

  • Full Text (only shows sources you can access immediately)
  • Peer Review
  • Publication Date
  • Source Type (such as Scholarly or Academic Journals, Newspapers, Magazines, Books, Dissertations, or Media)
  • Subjects