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Database Search Strategies

When you first select a database for searching or when you aren't finding what you expected or need -- ask yourself some of these questions. Check in with the reference librarians for advice and check the user guides and help screens. These characteristics are common in online catalogs and databases providing citations to scholarly research; many of these are also becoming common in web searching.

After working through these examples, you can request a Database Search Strategy Worksheet at the Reference Desk (or download a Database Search Strategy Worksheet in Adobe Portable Document (PDF) format). Please fill out this form to help the Reference Librarians assist you in determining the best databases and search strategy for your topic.

Spelling/Word variants: Does the database allow you to search for spelling variations by using symbols? This is called truncation.

Example: gentrif* locates: gentrify, gentrification, gentrified
  wom?n locates: woman, women, womyn

Word order and proximity: If you type in two words [for example, rolling stones] how does the database search for those two words? -- as a phrase, in the same order? As separate words, anywhere in the document?

If it cannot search phrases, check for special commands that tell the computer to look for words next to or close to each other, for example, rolling adj stones, rolling near stones, rolling w/1 stones

Subject Headings/Descriptors: Does the database bring documents on the same subject together when authors use different words for the same basic idea? Does it have a thesaurus [dictionary of subject headings]? Or do you have to type in all the different ways of saying the same thing?

  Example: AFRICAN AMERICANS
  Used for: African Americans, Afro-Americans, Blacks

Limiting: Does the indexing allow you to limit the search to particular dates, languages, or formats such as book reviews?

Logical relationships among concepts (Boolean logic): Many databases, including the online catalog, use standard "logical operators" that allow you to specify relationships among concepts:

AND AND Search results must include both terms
Example: California AND Nevada
OR OR Search results may include either term or both terms
Example: California OR Nevada
NOT NOT Articles must include only the first term; articles with both terms in them will be eliminated.
Example: California NOT Nevada
[be careful using this one if you want everything about California, even if the article is about Nevada too.]

These “operators” may be used in combination; parentheses which clarify which pairs of terms are to be combined may be required.

For example, think about the difference between these two:

homeless* and (housing or hunger)
(homeless* and housing) or hunger

LaVonne Jacobsen; 1/1998

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