Constructing a Search
Computers do not "think;
they don't understand the context for information you
need, or the subtle nuances of human language and thought.
Computers are literal -- they
process commands based on the keystrokes you make.
In the same way, databases retrieve search results based on the words
that you enter. Learning how to identify correct terms and
phrases for your topic is essential for conducting successful searches.
The first step is to
identify terms that describe each of the main concepts for your topic.
For the topic The
Influence of Advertising on
Incidents of Anorexia, the two main concepts would be:
Using the topic Entrepreneurial Trends in the Hispanic Community,
the most important concepts are:
Hispanic and entrepreneurs
- Narrow a topic that's too general.
For example, a paper on the entire Civil Rights Movement would cover overwhelming amounts of information, while a study of the
Civil Rights Movement Effects in Alabama
would be manageable.
- Broaden your specific topic (place
it in its broader context) if you find too few sources dealing with
While you may not find entire books about the Battle of
Marathon, you would find information about that battle in
many history books on Ancient Greece.
- Focus on one specific aspect or central concept of the subject that you want to
For example, aromatherapy might be a focus
drawn from the larger subject of alternative
Remember to limit
your search statement to essential words.
Few search tools attempt to make sense out of entire sentences entered as a search.
Trim database searches
down to essential words.
- A search can be complex and contain multiple terms, but it shouldn't contain unnecessary words. Omit pronouns, articles,
adverbs and conjunctions (common words such as of,
an, the and so on).
- Be alert when using OR
as search terms in any database. These words most often serve a
specific function as Boolean operators, and are used to combine search terms
example, you might search for information about brothers
An effective basic
keyword search statement for
our previous sample topic
Influence of Advertising on
Incidents of Anorexia) would be:
To search for Entrepreneurial Trends in the Hispanic Community,
Hispanic AND entrepreneurs
Think of synonyms for search terms.
To identify terms
for the main concepts of your topic, you often need to think creatively about synonyms, plurals and related words when conducting
keyword searches. Using a sample topic The
Negative Effects of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) on Cows, the
main concepts are BGH and cows.
In order to find as much information as possible about cows, it would be reasonable to:
- Try synonyms and
plurals: cows, cattle, bovine, dairy cattle
- Try broader terms if you dont find enough information:
female livestock, bovidae
- Try narrower terms if you find too much information:
Searching for phrases
can be tricky.
Some databases automatically search multiple words together as one
Spanish cooking = searches the exact phrase "Spanish cooking"
- If your results are unexpectedly few, it may be that your words are being searched as a phrase, and this exact
phrase seldom appears in the database. In this case,
repeat the search using
AND between search terms.
AND communication = searches the words
AND communication in any order, found anywhere in the
- In some databases and search tools
Google), AND is automatically implied between words. If your search results are surprisingly
few, an implied
AND may be breaking your phrase into individual search terms.
You may need to re-submit your terms as a bound phrase search by using quotation marks to enclose
For example, you would
the phrases "Bovine
or "acid rain"
Keyword Searching allows you to:
- Combine search terms
using OR and AND
(Boolean operators), as in:
- Construct more
complex search statements by using parentheses to group terms.
For example, to find information about cows and
Bovine Growth Hormone, you can use AND and OR in a
- Use truncation (also known as a wildcard
search, usually indicated by the * symbol) to search for any ending
variation of a word, including
plurals. For example:
= will find results for university as well
as the plural form, universities
= will find results whether the database
uses the terms computer, computers, or
program, programs, or programming
For more about Boolean, parenthetical and truncation searching,
link to our Ramsey Library Research Guide to Boolean
Almost all electronic databases have a special keywords index that makes searching easier.
helpful to use a keyword search when you don't know specific titles, exact subject headings, or if you need to find contents of a book, such as stories in an anthology.
Keyword searches are
recommended for cutting edge or newly popular
topics, and for interdisciplinary topics or abstract concepts that cannot be
adequately expressed by one single subject heading.
In addition to a keywords index, most databases used for
have a subject index that you can search for items on a particular topic.
entry in most databases is assigned one or more descriptive terms, or subject
Though it's generally a good strategy to begin with
keyword searches, there are definite advantages to subject searching:
A database that uses subject headings is
consistent and efficient. All items about a concept or topic are assigned the
same subject heading. This
consistency reduces the number of searches needed to find everything on a topic.
Subject searches also help find items with non-descriptive titles.
- The sample topic animal welfare might also be described
with such terms as humane treatment of animals,
animal neglect, or protection of animals. But
when searching in the library catalog database, you wouldn't need to
search for each of these terms in order to find all the
information for this topic. A single subject search
for animal welfare will retrieve all the
- When a subject heading is used, it doesn't matter if a book with the
title Bulls and Bears is really about the stock exchange.
A subject search for stock exchanges will find it.
Tip: The Library of Congress subject classification system
used in the library catalog makes it possible to shelve all books about a specific topic in one place, and to shelve books on similar, related subjects in the same area of the library.
So when you find an appropriate book for your topic, be sure to browse the
shelves around it for further information about your subject.