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DIY: Research Help

A continually evolving suite of research help content focused on helping you navigate the research process.

Search Strategy Tools

Keyword & Subject Searching

How to Craft Search Terms that Get Results

Take it Apart

When starting a search, many people type in a phrase, such as: arts in the classroom. This may not yield the best results though, since most search engines will start by trying to find the whole phrase.

Instead, take your topic and pull the main ideas out into keywords. A better keyword search might be: arts AND classroom, or, arts AND teaching, or, arts AND pedagogy.

Think Outside the Box

We often start with a single term, like "theater," and all our searches revolve around that term. Searching with synonyms and related concepts will help find results you may have otherwise missed. Searching for: teaching AND (theater OR drama OR acting) will yield far more focused results than a search on just the term 'theater". (Don't forget different spellings too! i.e. "theater" and "theatre.")

Let Other People Do the Work

Unlike a web search, most catalogs and databases are organized with a controlled vocabulary. This means that every resource indexed in it - books, artcles, etc. - have been assigned specific subject terms. These often appear as part of the citation - look for tools that say Subject, or Subject-Thesaurus Term. By clicking on subject terms, you'll immediately be directed to other items that have been classified with similar content. Controlled vocabulary is a very powerful search tool - use it.  

Step Up to Advanced

Almost every search engine, catalog, and database offers an Advanced Search feature. Most will allow you to search on multiple terms, sort for full-text, date ranges, and type of publication, as well as remove certain types of results from a search (like reviews or editorials).

Infographic: Brainstorming Keywords

Combining Search Terms: Using AND, OR, & NOT

Combine your search terms with AND, OR, NOT:

These are called Boolean Operators or search commands for describing what you want to find in a database.
AND NARROWS RESULTS results must include both words e.g. athletes AND injuries
OR BROADENS RESULTS results can include either word e.g. athletes OR players
NOT NARROWS RESULTS results must not include the second word e.g. athletes NOT professional

Where should I search? What do library databases contain? How are they different from Google?

Here are some guideposts to help you navigate this decision:

  1. After identifying the type of information sources you need, think whether you will be most likely to find those sources by searching in the library's databases and catalog or on the Internet. For most of your assignments, papers, and projects, you want to start in the library's databases and/or catalog. Remember that even though searching the Internet provides tons of information, a lot of it, especially scholarly sources, are restricted to subscribers only or require you to pay an access fee.
  2. Consider your topic carefully - most topics don't live in a bubble of just one discipline or field. Think about what disciplines might relate to or have a great impact on your topic. Different disciplines and their corresponding databases provide access to different resources, researchers who bring different perspectives and help you build a much more rounded and complete picture to serve as the foundation for your own research or opinions. 
  3. Subject databases vs. multi-disciplinary databases
    • A subject database such as Criminal Justice Abstracts, is one that focuses on a specific discipline or field of study. Sometimes they even focus on a smaller, specialized area within a discipline. They tend to have a deep collection of resources on that one discipline/subject.
    • A multi-disciplinary database is one that covers a broad range of disciplines and fields of study. While as a whole these databases have a vast number of resources, the number within each individual discipline/subject that it covers are much smaller than a subject database would cover. However, using a multi-disciplinary database is a great way to connect to other disciplines related to your topic that might not have considered.
  4. Consider the type of resources you need: books, scholarly articles, statistics, legal cases, etc. Some databases focus on a limited number of publication types while others offer a broad range.

Key take away: You should always use multiple databases and sources if you want to succeed with any research project.

Infographic: What do library databases contain?