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Database Search Tips: Home

a guide to ways to improve your searching in library databases


Searching for information and searching databases effectively and efficiently is not difficult, but to do it well takes practice and an understanding of how databases work.

There are several techniques to consider mastering:

  1. Connecting Words - combining search terms with AND, OR, NOT to broaden or narrow your search
  2. Truncation/Wildcard Searching - using symbols in place of letters to tell the database to search for variants of a word
  3. Stop Words - when searching, certain words are ignored by databases
  4. Phrase Searching - sometimes the order of words does matter
  5. Field Searching - target specific database fields for certain pieces of information
  6. Subject Searching - searching for subjects (not keywords) can improve the quality of our search results.

For assistance on searching by these techniques, please contact your subject specialist librarian.

Before Searching - Brainstorm!

The first step in the information seeking process is brainstorming. Spend a few minutes thinking about your topic, considering exactly what it is you are looking for information about. I suggest using a sheet of paper and mapping out your topic, using columns to define your search terms, listing as many synonyms (words that mean the same thing, but are spelled differently) as you can for each concept in your topic.

Why? Because when you start searching databases, you want to have a list of terms to plug into your search, to ensure you are thorough in your searching.

  • Try to think of variant spelling (color versus colour, or behavior versus behaviour, for example)
  • Consider singular versus plural spelling (child versus children versus childrens)
  • Synonyms: intoxication, drunkenness, inebriated, drunk, alcoholism, etc.

Trust me. Investing 5-10 minutes brainstorming will pay dividends when you begin your search, and it can save you time as well.

Brainstorming in Practice

Let's suppose you are researching the use of cell phones and driving. If you use the search terms "cell phones and driving" you will generally find information containing the words "cell" "phones" and "driving".

However, if there is information out there on cellular telephones and driving, you might not find it because you searched for "cell phones and driving"

If we were to brainstorm cell phones and driving, we might come up with the following search terms:

Topic Concept Words
cell phones (plural) driving
cellular phone (singular) drive
mobile telephone (singular) car (singular and plural)
telephones (plural) automobile (singular and plural)
device (singular and plural)

Note that there are many other terms we didn't account for if we just searched for "cell phones and driving". We can employ search techniques to search our topic much more effectively and completely.