Search Strategies

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.

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 dictionaries, encyclopedias, or a thesaurus to find alternate words.

Step 4: Add "Boolean operators" (AND, OR) to make a complete search statement

  • Use AND to limit or narrow your search to results that mention all of your keywords.
  • Use OR to broaden your search to include synonyms.
  • Africa AND slavery AND writing
  • Africa AND slavery AND (writing OR literature) - Note: OR terms must be bracketed.

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: September 11, 2018