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History: Search Strategies

Search Strategies

Learning how to craft advanced search queries will minimize your research time by providing relevant search results. This page explains some of the most common strategies you can use when looking for library resources in the online catalog and databases.

The Information Cycle

The Information Cycle is the progression of media coverage of a particular newsworthy event.  Understanding the information cycle will help you to choose the most appropriate types of sources (i.e. newspapers, articles, or books) for your topic.

Phrase Searches & Truncation

Phrase Searches

Quotation marks around a phrase, for example "inclusive eduction," will find articles about inclusive eduction and exclude articles that only mention eduction or only mention inclusive.

The technique can also be used to find direct quotes, song lyrics, and common titles. It is especially useful if you want to include "stop words" such as "the" or "a," which would normally be automatically excluded.


"it was the best of times, it was the worst of times"

"Malcolm X"

"heart attack"



Using an asterisk (*) charachter to a search will find word suffixes, eliminating the need to type all variation sof a wrod in your search.

Be sure to include enough letters. For example: dis* will find disablitity, and disabled, but also disorder and disease, to name a few.


research* will find researchers, researching, and research

Afric* will find Africa and Africans

Developing Your Search

It is important that you have some solid ideas of what you are searching for before you start your search. This may seem obvious, but many beginning researchers waste a lot of time reading through articles that they ultimately can't use.

This process is known as defining your search question, or framing an answerable question.

It involves:

  • Deciding on the topic of your search. A research topic often begins as a broad, general subject that needs to be narrowed and refined.
  • Backgound reading (Reference Sources) and deciding which particular aspect(s) of that topic you are interested in.
  • Stating your topic as a question. Research questions can help determine the direction of your research and narrow the focus of the topic.
  • A thesis statement will begin to develop as you narrow to a specific aspect of the larger topic.


  • Topic - The Great Lakes
  • Research Questions-What invasive species are now present in the Great Lakes? OR How have changes to the Great Lakes affected fishing and tourism industries?
  • Tentative (or "Working") Thesis Statement: Strict federal control over the shipping trade on the Great Lakes is needed to contain invasive species, such as, zebra mussels, Asian carp, and sea lamprey, which threaten the ecological and economic future of the lakes.

Next, identify the main concepts in your research question/s:

How have changes to the Great Lakes affected fishing and tourism industries?

The words and phrases shown in bold (and any synonyms for these concepts) are the main concepts and become the terms you type into the sources you decide to search.

Subject Searching vs. Keyword Searching

Subject headings, also called descriptors, describe the content of each item in a database/catalog. Use these headings to find relevant items on the same topic. 

Searching by subject headings is often the most precise way to search databases.  

Most databases have a defined set of subject terms (a.k.a "controlled vocabulary"). Many subject terms are common to all databases, but be aware that they may vary from database to database.

Keyword searches look for your terms anywhere in the record -- e.g., in the title, abstract, subject heading, or other notes. Keyword searches are a good way to start your search, but may be less precise or relevant than searches using prescribed subject terms.


Examples of Keyword Terms                             Example of Subject Heading Terms

Native Americans                                                    Indians of North America

Cars                                                                            Automobiles

Movies                                                                        Motion Pictures

Civil War                                                                    United States-History-Civil War, 1861-1865


Tips for finding subject headings:

Option 1:

Start with a keyword search.

Browse your results until you find 2 or 3 relevant titles.

Look at the "subject" or "descriptor" assigned to the titles and either use those links or re-do your search using the terms listed.

Option 2:

Look to see if the database has an online thesaurus to browse for subjects that match your topic.

Combining Concepts

Using Boolean Characters to Combine Two or More Concepts:

The Boolean character AND is used to combine two or more search concepts.

Search results will contain BOTH concept A and B, which narrows the search and produces fewer results.


Shakespeare AND sonnets

            nonprofit AND leadership And innovation


The Boolean character OR is used to add synonyms or similar words to your search.

Search results contain either keyword A OR keyword B, which broadens your search and produces more results.


doctors OR physicians

teenagers OR teens OR adolescents


The Boolean character NOT is used to eliminate specific results, especially when a word has multiple meanings.

Search results are limited to concept A and exclude results that mention concept B.


seal NOT navy

AIDS NOT feline