Landman Library

Searching Strategically

Before we get started, let's talk strategy. 

You wouldn't want to rush into the big game without a plan, or hike into the woods without a compass and map, right? 

It's easy to get lost in the amount of information that can be found on the open web or in library databases. You may do a search and find little to no results related to your topic. Does that mean the information you need isn't out there? Not necessarily! 

In order to find and use information, you may need to take a step back and think about what you've already identified. Think about your research question, the scope of your investigation, and the keywords you may have begun generating for your topic. 

Ask yourself some of the following questions: 

  • What types of sources do I want to find? Is this the right search engine or database to find that type of information source?
  • What keywords am I using? Is there another way to talk about what I'm trying to find? Do the people talking about this topic use different terms or phrases than I'm using? 
    • This may sound like an easy task, but determining what to type in a search box can be hard! Especially when you are new to a topic, it may take some initial exploration to find the specialized language people use to discuss it.
  • What types of labels has the database assigned to similar sources? Could I use those subject terms
  • What other requirements am I looking for and how can I narrow my results? Do sources need to be scholarly or peer-reviewed? Does this information need to be a recent as possible?

You can also modify your results using various search strategies. The default of search engines and most databases is to separate keywords and search for them individually.

The Power of And, Or, and Not

In a library database, you can control your results by connecting keywords with AND, OR, NOT, and by using other search strategies like putting "quotation marks" around phrases to keep them together in the search.

Use AND to narrow your results. Your results must include each term.

Use OR to broaden your results. Your results could include any one of the terms. 

Use NOT to exclude terms from your results. 

Quotation marks narrow your results by keeping words in a phrase together. 

Explains the function of Boolean operators

We sometimes try to do research without really thinking about it. But how do we know if our research strategy is the best or most efficient? What if we can't remember what's worked well or what hasn't in the past? 

Using a Research Log to Document Your Search

research log can help you keep track of and think about how you search for sources. A research log can be as informal as quickly jotting down keywords and notes, or it can be more structured like writing annotations or summaries of sources and how they might fit into your project. The research log document linked here can help you practice this skill!

Adapted from Maria Accardi & Tessa Withorn's Canvas module Access & Use.