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ENG 1320 Library Tutorial: 3. Search Strategies

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So you've chosen the best keywords to describe your topic and decided where you want to search—now it's time to figure out how to put them together.

We call these search strategies because searching is like a puzzle. There are hundreds of thousands of resources in the library's databases, and somewhere in there are the ones you need for your assignment.

To get to them, you'll need to combine your tools—your topic and keywords—with some librarian know-how—the strategies on this page—to figure out the best approach. What is the best approach? The one that saves you time and effort and gets you the best possible results.

In this section, you will learn:

  • How to get search results that better fit your topic
  • What Boolean operators are
  • Why to put your phrases in quotation marks

The Big Idea: How do I narrow down my search results?

In this video:

  • Why should I use multiple keywords in my search?
  • How does "phrase searching" narrow down my results?
  • Why are Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT) useful?
  • What is truncation and how does it work?

What other search strategies are there?

In addition to "phrase searching," Boolean operators, and truncation (watch the Big Idea video if these terms are not familiar), you can also try using wildcard searches

Like truncation, wildcard searches will expand your results. Wildcard searches allow the database to replace the wildcard symbol with any letters that would make up a real word. It's like a shorthand way of typing every possible word that fits the pattern with OR in between. Not only will this save you time, but it might also give you alternative keywords you hadn't even thought of.

Here's a table to illustrate how some of these symbols (including the truncation asterisk) typically work.

Symbol What it does Sample search Instead of typing
* replaces zero or more letters at the end of a word
(this is truncation)
comput* computer OR computing OR computational OR...
# replaces at most one letter ne#t net OR neat OR next OR nest OR...
? replaces only one letter wom?n woman OR women OR womyn


REMEMBER: Some databases may use these symbols differently or may use different symbols, so check the database's help section if you're having problems with wildcards.

Useful Links

Google Inside Search - if you must use Google, learn lots of tips and tricks for making your search better.

Rockwell Schrock's Boolean Machine - useful tool for visualizing how Boolean operators work.

University of Wollongong: Using phrase searching to improve search results - Flash video explaining more about "phrase searching."

Boolean Operators in Action: AND

Boolean Operators in Action: OR

Boolean Operators in Action: NOT

Other Frequently Asked Questions

How many search results is a good number?    

There's no real magic number when it comes to searching. A good rule of thumb is that you want a number that you can reasonably evaluate one by one.

Thousands is way too many to look through—use AND or NOT with another keyword to narrow down your search. Fewer than 10 might not be enough for your assignment—try removing one keyword, expanding your search with OR and a synonym, or looking in a different database.

Do these search strategies only work in the example database?    

Nope! Boolean operators and "phrase searching" will work in any database and in the library catalog. However, only "phrase searching" will work in Google—it treats AND, OR, and NOT as regular words, not database commands.

Also, remember that some databases treat wildcards differently, so check the database's help section for more information.