Key Tips

Library database searching is NOT like Google! Most do not support natural language searching. You have to be precise in the words that you select.

Developing a good search strategy is important

Answer the following questions:

  • what is your assignment?
  • what is the main topic?
  • who has an interest in that topic?
  • what other language might they be using to talk about that topic? do they spell it differently?
  • when was it relevant? is it a new idea, or a long standing issue?
  • what other factors play into your issue? geography, government, people, etc.

Once you've decided which terms are the most useful for your search, combine them in a Boolean search.

Use keywords only, DO NOT search using a full sentence.

Boolean Search Terms

An example of a Keyword Search:

For example: (writ* OR literature) AND Africa* AND "slave trade"

  • the * will look for alternate endings
  • AND/OR will modify a component to narrow or expand your results
  • OR terms need to be bracketed: for example: (strategy OR plan OR method)
  • NOT eliminates items that contain the specified term. Searching on malaria NOT zika returns items that are about malaria, but will specifically NOT return items that contain the word zika. This is a way to fine-tune results. Note: sometimes AND NOT is used; serves the same function as NOT.
  • (the capitalization of AND/OR/NOT varies from database to database, it is better to get in the habit of capitalizing them)
  • if you had a multi-word phrase, putting quotes around it will search specifically for that phrase, in that sequence, side by side such as "Human Rights".

Break down your keywords into a search string

Step 1: Write your topic out in sentence or question form

  • How is African slavery portrayed in African writing?

Step 2: Break your topic sentence up into main ideas or keywords

  • Africa, slavery, writing

Step 3: Think of synonyms or alternate words to describe each concept

  • writing - literature

Tip: Use a thesaurus to find alternate words

Step 4: Add "Boolean operators" (AND, OR, NOT etc. (see paragraph above) to make a complete search statement

Step 5: Add wildcards to search for all possible word endings

A wildcard is usually represented by a *. This is also called truncation.

  • (writ* OR literature) AND Africa* AND slave*

Step 6: Consider Key Phrase searching

Some databases search each word separately. To ensure that your words are evaluated as a key phrase, enclose them in double quotation marks.

  • "human rights"

Step 7: Evaluate your results

If you are finding too many or too few results, try these tricks:

To broaden your search (find more):

  • Find synonym for each keyword.
  • Search for a broader concept ('dog' instead of 'poodle').
  • Use wildcards/truncation.

To narrow your search (find fewer):

  • Add another concept or idea to your search with AND
  • Use more specific words ('poodle' instead of 'dog').
Content last reviewed: