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Historical Methods- Prof. Manning

Strategic Searching

The video below discusses searching as strategic exploration that involves trying out different search terms and strategies. Think of your search strategies as a puzzle with has more than one solution!

Good Research Starting Points:

Top Database Search Tips

Your search strategies will depend partly on the research tools you use. Search engines like Google tend to be less picky about your terms. However, Google search results also usually require more careful evaluation of  source credibility, since it includes a larger number of sources from a wider range of places.

Library databases allow for advanced searching and include high-quality content. They often, however, are more challenging to search than Google. These database search tips will help:

  • Limit the number of search terms that you use.
  • Use key words that best express your topic. Avoid non-essential terms like "the" and "of."
  • Try multiple searches. Experiment with related terms, including broader or narrower terms.
  • Explore the database's Advanced Search options.
  • On the search results page look for ways to refine your search.

Keyword Searching

Keywords are search terms that express the essence of your topic. They are crucial to an effective search, especially in library databases.

Video on Choosing & Using Keywords (John M. Pfau Library)

1. Be concise.

Begin with only 2-3 essential terms, and avoid long phrases. The more terms you enter the fewer results you’ll get. (For example, a search for environmental consequences of fracking may yield 0 results, while fracking environment yields over 2,000.)

2. Use synonyms and related terms.

If your first term doesn’t work, try a synonym. You may have to try out several related search terms to find the types of resources you're looking for.  (Example: environment INSTEAD OF environmental consequences)

3. Identify keywords with background research.

To identify useful keywords, do some quick background research. Note terms that are often used to discuss the topic. (Reference sources like Wikipedia or the library databases Credo Reference and Britannica Academic offer overviews of many topics. Of course, remember to evaluate information in Wikipedia with particular care since almost anyone can edit it.)

4. Identify keywords from search results.

Do a quick database search and view the search results page to identify relevant terms.

  • Titles and article abstracts (summaries) often include helpful terms. 
  • “Subject” terms are used in library databases describe what a source is about. Look in a database for relevant subject terms - they can help you locate more records on the topic.

5. Combine search terms.

In most databases you can refine results using the search functions AND, OR, and NOT.

  • AND: shows results that include both terms (e.g., government AND policy)
  • OR: shows results that include one or more terms; used for related terms (e.g., civic OR government)
  • NOT: removes results that include a term (e.g., Julius Caesar NOT Shakespeare)

Refining a Search

Narrowing or Broadening a Search

Too many results? Ways to broaden a search include: 
  • Combine more search terms using AND. 
  • Use more narrow search terms.
  • Use relevant search limiters (e.g., specify publication date or type, limit search terms by search fields like 'title').
  • Do not use OR or NOT. 

Too few results? Ways to narrow a search include:

  • Use fewer search terms.
  • Use broader search terms.
  • Remove search limiters.
  • Combine relevant search terms using OR or NOT.

More search tips for broadening or narrowing a search.

Trouble finding sources on your topic?

 Rethink your search strategy. This video may help.