Search Tips

Searching is hard. Fortunately, we are happy to share some tips and tricks that can help create a better search.

Start with a good search statement:

This may be the most difficult part of your search, but getting it right will prove invaluable. Figure out your concept. While doing background research, take note of the key terms used in the literature on that concept, then identify synonyms of those key terms.  Use those words to build your search statement. Start with a general search that will allow you to see how much information is available on your concept and how well your search terms are working. Depending on the results, you can always narrow or expand the search.

Select the best database

The librarians have organized the Library’s databases by subject. Each database is listed with a brief overview of what the database covers, so you can have some idea of whether or not it will prove helpful.

Find a better search term

Sometimes the word you search for is not the best word, but you have trouble thinking of a better term. One of the easiest solutions is to find a search result that is close to what you need and then look for the “controlled vocabulary,” which will indicate a term that has been selected as the “preferred” word for describing a concept. In the catalog and databases, this will usually show up under Subject. Another good solution is to find a Reference resource, using the index to find your concept. Use the terms in that resource to build your search.

Ask the Librarians for help

These are some of the best tips and tricks we have to offer, but there may be others that are even better for your particular research need. Or you may have trouble figuring out how to use one of these tools or commands. They can be hard to find and tricky to use. Contact us for help. That’s what we are here for.

Use database and catalog shortcuts:

The catalog and many databases have built-in shortcuts that can help you more effectively target a search. Keep in mind that every database is different, so check the Help and Tutorial buttons that are available for further information. Listed below are some of the common shortcuts:

Search for all variants of a term

You may want your search to include multiple spellings (color or colour), tenses (jump, jumps, jumping), or noun endings (dog, dogs; America, American). To find each variant, use a shortcut called “truncation”. This refers to placing a symbol, known as a “wildcard” in place of either one or multiple characters in your term. The symbols are different from database to database, but most common is an asterisk (*) or a question mark (?). Here are some example searches based on the samples above: col*r, jump*, dog*, and America*. As you can see the symbol can be placed either inside or at the end of the word. Some databases (and the catalog) specify how many characters a wildcard can replace.

Combine terms

A bedrock of library research is “Boolean Operators”, which allow you to combine terms in ways targeted to specific results. There are three Boolean Operators: AND, OR, and NOT. Combining terms with AND narrows a search, because the search must return only those results with all of the terms. The more terms combined with AND, the narrower your results will be. Combining terms with OR broadens a search, because the search must return results either of one term or the other. OR is especially useful when searching synonyms. Combining terms with NOT eliminates some results, because the search returns results for one term but not the other term.

Search for an exact phrase

A keyword search includes all your terms, but not in the order the terms were written. But the order of terms can make a big difference to your search. Keyword searches also ignore very common words (called “stop words”) like the or a that may be important to a search. To include all terms, and keep them in order, do a “phrase search” by enclosing terms in quotation marks.

Search for one term within close proximity of another term

Sometimes your search will require finding one word near another one. To do this use “proximity operators” that combine search terms while indicating how close together they should be. A near operator tells the database that two terms should be close to each other, usually within ten words of each other. Sometimes a database will use a symbol, such as a tilde (~), for the operator. Here are some examples: international near conference or "international conference"~10. A variation on this search is the within operator that allows you to specify the maximum number of words that can appear between search terms. Within 10 and near are equivalent. An example of this is fractal within 3 geometry.

Have a citation? Find the item quickly

If you know the title of the book you need, do a title search in the catalog. If you know of a specific article, do a Journal Title search in the catalog. This will indicate if we have access to that journal, what years we have access to, and in what format (database or paper). If we have access through a database, it will also provide a link directly to that title in the database, so that you can find your article by drilling down through year, then volume, then issue.

Find full text if a database doesn’t provide it

Use Find Full Text, a link that should show up in most database results. If the full text is available in another of the library’s databases, there will be a link directly to that record: one link for each database. If full text is not available, there is a link allowing you to request the article through ILL.