Information Discovery: Keywords and Platforms

Module developed by Elise Silva from the Composition Program at the University of Pittsburgh

How much do you usually think about the search terms you use to find source material in databases and archives? This module asks you to consider how the methods and means you use to find sources affect what information you do and don’t see. By unpacking the assumptions made by you, the researcher, in your keyword searches, as well as assumptions made in how information is organized in databases, I hope you will more carefully consider the language you use in your queries as well as the affordances and constraints of different information discovery tools in the future.




This exercise will ask you to explore a digitized newspaper archive. You will learn about how it was created, how it can be searched, and you will experiment with different keyword searches to find relevant materials.  The directions below will walk you through the exercise. You will need a computer with an internet connection and 20-30 minutes to complete the work.


Try a New Platform

In the “Watch” and “Do” sections above, you thought about a newspaper archive and saw a demonstration of a library database search. Now, it is your turn to explore information discovery platforms of your own.

First, choose the platform: a digital archive, a library database, or a search engine. Second, learn about how that platform connects your search queries to its results (examples: Google Scholar, JSTOR, Scopus). Third, run a few searches with a topic that is of interest to you and record your findings.

Consider the Platform and Keywords

  • What are the affordances and constraints of this platform?
  • What assumptions are you making in the language you use to search for this topic?
  • How is this information discovery tool organized and what does that say about how the humans who made it viewed/conceived of the world around then?

Use Your Own Search Terms or Try These

  • Marijuana vs. Cannabis
  • Climate Change vs. Global Warming
  • Illegal Alien vs. Undocumented Immigrant


  1. Information-finding is not neutral. Databases and archives are created and organized by humans who have particular views about the world. These views affect how information is organized, and how you find it.
  2. The language you use to find information sources matters greatly. Each keyword can be unpacked, questioned, and modified into several alternate keywords. Keyword searching is iterative.
  3. Understanding the processes by which you explore and access information is as important as your ability to analyze, evaluate, and use the information sources themselves.
  4. Information discovery platforms can both facilitate and also sometimes obfuscate access to relevant information sources.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.