Research: Develop Search Strategies

A few standard techniques apply to the searching of library catalogs and other electronic databases, such as the ability to search by title and by author for a specific book or article. Most databases also allow you to to search by keyword and (in most databases) also by subject. Each method has its advantages and limitations. We'll examine Keyword searching first, followed by subject searching.

1. Brainstorm for Keywords

It is always a good idea to take a couple minutes and think about your topic and keywords to use in your searches.

Take the thesis statement example used earlier: “Hydrogen-based cars are the future of environmentally friendly transportation in America.” What keywords might be used to search for relevant sources?

  1. Look at your topic statement or question
    Hydrogen-based cars are the future of environmentally friendly transportation in America.
  2. Break it down into its major concept terms
    hydrogen cars future environment friendly America

  3. Think of synonyms and variations of your keywords to use when searching
    hydrogen car /cars environment friendly America
      automobile Ecology safe United States
      vehicle   benefit/

Try It!

Take a moment to brainstorm for keywords and synonyms based on your own topic.

2. Put Your Keywords Together

Once you have a list of keywords to use in your search, you can put your keywords and synonyms together to find the articles you need. Keyword searching offers several means of expanding and focusing searches. These methods apply to most databases although the specific form they take can vary. Databases normally offer a link to a Help section that explains the specifics.

Search term connectors especially AND, OR, and NOT allow you to combine terms.

To focus your search, and combine different aspects of your topic, use AND:

To expand your search and find different word variations, use OR:

Sometimes when you search, you might find some results that are irrelevent. For example, Leonardio DiCaprio is known for driving an environmentally friendly car, but you might not want to find articles about his driving habits. To tell a database to discard certain keywords from your search results, use the word NOT. In some cases certain databases use the phrase AND NOT, but the result is the same.

Another way of expanding your search is to use truncation. You can search for variations of a word like this:

The best way to do a keyword search is to combine all of these search techniques:

Try It!

Using the keywords and synonyms you wrote down earlier, write a search strategy using AND and OR and use parenthesis to group your synonyms together

3. Which Way to Search: by Subject or Keyword?

Actually, you can use either or both of these methods to search for your topic. But in a keyword search, the computer will look for the word wherever it appears, and in a subject search it will look for the word as an assigned “subject” term, or even as the first word in a set string of terms. What this means can best be shown by example:

If you do a keyword search in our library catalog for “Boston,” you will find books published by publishers located in Boston, books written by George L. Boston, CDs by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, etc., along with books pertaining to Boston. If you wanted to search by subject for books on Boston during the Revolutionary War, you would need to know that "Boston (Mass.) -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783” is the correct string of terms to use (although you could stop short in your typing and leave off the dates at the end).

Either method of searching MAY work satisfactorily on your initial try. For example, a subject search in our library catalog for Solar System would turn up a good listing of books right away, and a simple keyword search for Solar System would work equally well. However, for a topic like China’s one child policy, you would probably need to use additional techniques to find sources.

In short, either method of searching MAY or MAY NOT work well initially – and probably will not prove, by itself, the best and most thorough way of searching. Therefore it can be handy to know of other search techniques.

Note: It is not always easy to determine the best search strategy or combination of strategies for searching one or more databases. Whenever you run into difficulty here, remember that help is available at the library reference desk or through an appointment with a librarian.