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Hope Library Guides

Research Desk Practice Exercises

Creating Good Searches

Translating a research question into an effective search can be a challenge.  Particularly today, when we are used to Google, which is very forgiving about the words we use to search, it can be hard to move to library tools, where we have to be a little more strategic in how we craft searches.


Tip #1Keep searches simple.  Avoid searching with a long question or phrase.  Databases tend not to handle this well.  Instead, pick out the 2-4 most important words in the topic and construct a search with these.  Leave out filler words like "and" "of" "the", etc.

Example:  Compare the results for following searches

how are women portrayed negatively in magazines? (Communication and Mass Media Complete)

women portray* magazines


Tip #2 - Use your first results (bad or good) to brainstorm other words to search with.  As I'm sure you know, there are usually many ways to search for the same thing.  Use the words included in the titles, abstracts, and subject headings to figure out other words to search instead.

Example: Consider the list of additional search terms that were brainstormed from just this one article: "Taking it All Off: The Portrayal of Women in Advertising Over the Past Forty Years"

stereotypes, gender, femininity, "gender role", "sex roles", sexuality


Tip #3 - Search multiple ways to search more exhaustively, and use Booleans and Wildcards to construct more complex searches.  If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!  Talk to the patron about how a big part of research is experimenting with how you search so that they know what's going on.  Also, bring a librarian into the discussion because we have a lot of experience with constructing effective searches.

Booleans and Wildcards are search language tools you can use to make your search more powerful:

X and Y Searches for Both Women AND magazines
X or Y Searches for either stereotypes OR bias
X not Y Doesn't search for the 2nd word asian NOT american
"quotations" Searches for a phrase "media representation"
Asterisk* Searches for multiple endings

portray* (finds portray, portrays, portrayal, portrayals, portrayed)


Groups words together around a boolean

(use mostly with ORs)

women AND magazines AND

(femininity OR stereotypes OR sexuality)


women AND magazines AND (femininity OR stereotypes OR sexuality OR "gender roles")

women AND portrayal AND film       VS      women AND portray* AND film

women's rights media          VS            "women's rights" media


Tip #4 - Use Subject Headings to bring up articles more focused on the topic

When you do a general keyword search, the database will search for these works wherever they can find them (title, publication, abstract, ie, anywhere in the record or full-text).  While this can be helpful, it can also bring back many less relevant hits that include the keywords in tangential ways.  If you find your terms (or related ones) listed as subject headings in more "on topic" articles, consider searching these words just as subject headings to bring back resources that are more focused on these topics.

image of an article highlighting the subject terms section


Tip #5Be aware of the hazards of "qualifying" keywords.  

Understandably, most researchers are digging into a particular angle of a topic, as they seek to flesh out a thesis.  For example:

"How has college sports grown into a big business?"

"What challenges do governments face in combating human trafficking?

"What are the advantages and disadvantages of eating organic foods?"

It can be tempting to want to including these qualifiers in your searches, otherwise the results will come back very broadly.  However, be careful with this, because there are usually many different ways to describe this criteria, so if you are only searching with the term the patron brought, you may be limiting what you see and missing other important sources.

So what do you do?

Tactic #1 - Leave out the qualifying words in the search and just search more broadly on the topic.  Encourage the patron to browse with you through the results for resources that look like they are going to be engaging with the qualifying aspects of their topic.

Tactic #2 - Brainstorm as many variants to their qualifier as the two of you can think of, and include all of these in the search using an OR search.

Example:   "organic food" AND (benefits OR advantages OR positives)


Tip #6 - Most important!  Bring a librarian into the conversation sooner rather than later.  Librarians have a lot of experience constructing effective searches and knowing what searches work better or worse in library tools.  Even if you feel you are getting good results, it is still important to refer to a librarian as well to make sure you aren't missing anything!


Exercise #1 - Please complete the Searching Like a Master online tutorial.  On the very last page, there will be a space to enter the email of your "instructor".  Please email the results to your mentor in order to complete the assignment.

Exercise #2 - Please complete the Keyword and Databases exercise.  Email the results to your mentor to complete the assignment.