Make Good Use of Resources for Finding Sources

Brian and Deena talking to each other. Brian: Okay. I understand that I need to start by writing down some questions I want to find answers to and by searching for background information. Then, I need to carefully evaluate the information I find to figure out if it will be good to use in my paper. But, I still don't understand how to start searching. How do I go about finding sources at the library?

Deena: I think the best way to start is by identifying some keywords to use when searching the databases. If we know specific book titles or authors, we can search using those names too, but since we are only just starting to find information about this topic, keywords are probably the best way to get started.

Brian: So should I just go to the library and ask the librarian to help me?

Deena: That's a good idea. With the library, you primarily use databases and electronic indexes to find books and articles or connect to e-books or e-journals. There are a lot of different databases, and you have to know which index or database to search in. With the Web, you are searching more broadly so you can find information from anywhere. Sometimes this is useful, but sometimes it's harder to sift through your search results to get to the reliable sources. And the library's online resources don't show up in a Google search.

Brian: No matter which one we use, I think we still need to identify the keywords before we can get started.

Use of the Library

For the most part, you will be using databases and electronic indexes to find books and articles in the library, or you will be connecting to the library's online access facilities.


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Use of the Web

On the Internet, search engines allow you to search broadly through databases of websites. This is a very powerful tool, but there are drawbacks:

Tip: When you find research materials on the Internet, record what, where, and when you found them. Record or print a complete citation for each source you find because you may need it again later. 

Student Dialog - Keyword Searches

Computer search dialog window. Deena: I usually get more information than I need when searching the Web. And I often have to work through a number of sites before I find one that I would want to use for a research paper. We should probably keep that in mind when searching the library for materials, too. There is a way around the problem of broad searches though.

Brian: Really?

Deena: Yes, really. In the library, most of the databases focus on particular topics.

Brian: That must be useful if you are looking for a specific type of information, like something in medicine or education or career information.

Deena: Exactly.

Brian: So, where do you think we should begin?

Deena: Since we have a computer here, let's connect to the library catalog ( We can begin our search there.

Brian: Okay. I've opened a browser. Do we want to start with a standard search? Since we are looking up information on first-year experiences, I could try looking up something like "college students" for the topic in the online library catalog.

Deena: From what we were talking about before, I thought keyword searches were a better way to start. Don't we need to define our keywords first?

Brian: I think you are right, Deena. A keyword search will probably give us a better selection of information since we don't know specific titles of books or authors to look for.

Deena: Okay. What are we really searching for here, experiences of first-year college students? So, what should I type to do a keyword search?

Brian: Try "freshman college experience."

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Standard Search

Standard library database search strategies involve common resource identifiers (i.e., Author, Title, Subject, Heading, Keyword).


Drawback: The terms used in different databases may vary and can affect your search results.

Keyword Search

A keyword search attempts to find key words (important, relevant, critical) not already pre-organized as identifiers (such as the subject index), but located anywhere in the entire index or database. This type of search looks for the words in the full listing (author, subject, title, abstract, date, etc.) of each entry. A keyword search is a less restrictive approach to finding materials containing terms you identified. This technique can be helpful when your topic is broad or if an index does not use identifiers which match your topic.


The keyword "galaxy" would retrieve entries about the solar system, the Milky Way, etc.

Drawback: This form of search can be inaccurate. A keyword may appear in many different entries - therefore many of the entries returned may have nothing to do with your topic. Generally, you need to figure out a way to focus keyword searches to narrow down the results. For example, the keyword, "train" could bring back entries involving locomotives. But, it may also bring back entries involving workplace training, classroom training, puppy training, weight training, and other entries.

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Student Dialog - Boolean Logic

Brian showing Deena search terms Deena: Well, you saw what I got. 250 entries. And a lot of these don't look like what we want.

Brian: I guess we need to add more keywords or something.

Deena: Let's try using Boolean logic. I learned that from reading the help on the Web search engines. It also works for many library search engines. Basically, it is a way of combining word searches to help focus the results on a specific topic while still searching broadly. You can combine keywords using "and," "not," and "or."

Brian: Okay, so when we entered the keyword "experience," the database returned everything that had experience in it, right?

Deena: Right.

Brian: So to narrow things down, I should do a Boolean search.

Deena: Type in the keyword, "experience," and then the word "and," and now the keyword, "freshman." It should read as follows: "experience" and "freshman."

Tip: Different search engines may use different Boolean words or symbols.

For example, Google uses + and - symbols, or you can use their advanced search options; most library databases use the words "AND," "NOT" and "OR." Generally, you can find the correct syntax for the search engine by using the help option.

Boolean - or a Combining - search strategy can be a powerful way to overcome the weaknesses of both standard and keyword searches. This strategy allows you to use operators such as "and," "not," and "or" to search for more than one term at a time and combine the results. This kind of strategy allows you to search broadly while at the same time focusing your results on your specific topic.

Examples: (see search engine results below):


Factoid: Logician George Boole (1815 - 1864) pioneered the study of symbolic logic or mathematical logic. This area of study examines relationships of sets of concepts and has a strong link to retrieving information.


More Savvy Searching Tips:


In addition to simple searches, search statements can be combined to be even more restrictive. Here are some examples and the results:

fish AND tropicalA circle for fish and for tropical that overlap. The overlap area is labeled fish and tropical.


fish NOT tropicalTwo overlapping circles. The part of the fish circle that does not overlap the topic circle is labeled fish not tropical.




(Whales OR dolphins) AND mammalsThree overlapping circles labeled whales, dolphins, and mammals.


algebra AND calculus


algebra AND calculus NOT linearThree overlapping circles named algebra, linear calculus, and non-linear calculus.








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