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Help Using the Library: Search Tips

View step-by-step instructions for finding books, eBooks, and articles, accessing online databases, requesting items from other campuses or colleges, and more.

What Are You Searching For?

Before you begin a search, you need to know exactly what you are looking for: 

Do you want works written by a specific author? Do an author search for the person's name. Make sure you use the correct spelling.

Are you looking for a specific title? Do a title search using words from the title (no need to include The, A, or An if it is the first word in the title).

Do you want works about a topic or person? - Pick your keywords and do an Anywhere search or a Subject search. These work differently so be sure to read about how each one works below. 

What Does Each Search Type Do and How Can You Create the Best Search?

If you want to find books written BY a particular person, do an Author search. 

If you want to find books ABOUT a particular person, do a Subject or Anywhere search.

To search for an author, use the first and last name in any order. Searching the last name only may bring back too many results. For example, a search for dickinson finds 90 items at the SJR State Library. I only wanted books written by Emily Dickinson and she's not even listed on the first page of results! 

screen shot of results page

An author search for emily dickinson finds 13 items all of which were written by her.

screen shots of results list

Lastly, be sure you use the correct spelling. For example, an Author search for steven king will find lots of things but none of them will be the horror or suspense written by stephen king.  

A title search looks for your keywords in the Title field of the item's record. If the word you are looking for appears in the record's summary, subject, or author's name, a title search will not find it. 

If you are doing research about a topic or a person, title searching is not as useful as doing an Anywhere or Subject search. 

When you search for a title, you can omit the first word if it is The, A, or An.

When you are looking for a specific title, be sure to include enough of the title  to retrieve the correct record. You may need to include some words from the subtitle to narrow your results. For example, below is a title search for the book called Click. But it turns out there are several books with the same, one word title or with a title containing the word click. The subtitle (the words after the colon) provides more information. If you were searching statewide, you might get overwhelmed with results if you just searched for the single word click.

results lists for a title search of the word click

 

The default search in most library resources is a Keyword search. Either way, this search retrieves items that have one or more of your keywords located somewhere in the record. The keyword could appear in the title, the place of publication, the name of the journal, the summary, or within the text itself if a resource searched that deeply (not all do).

If you choose to do a Subject search, the resource looks for your keywords in the Subjects that were assigned to each item by the person who put the item in the system.

Subject Headings are used to describe items in library catalogs and are the same no matter what catalog you use anywhere in the world because they all use Library of Congress (LC) Subject Headings. Subject Headings don't always use the most popular terms for things - for example, a subject search for fracking won't find anything in a library catalog because the Subject Heading is the formal term for the subject - hydraulic fracturing. So, Subject Headings in the catalog can be tricky. But once you find one that works, just click it and you'll have a great list of results! 

Subjects used in databases vary by the database. Database makers don't use an agreed upon set of words and phrases to describe what something is about the way libraries do. Therefore, subjects assigned to items in a database are assigned the same way for items about a certain topic in that one resource but if you do a subject search for those same terms in a different database, you may find nothing at all because the database doesn't use those words as subjects. That's why keyword searching is useful. 

If you do a Subject search and no results are found, do a Keyword search. Then, once you find something that's on target, look at the subjects used by that resource to describe it. Click on the subject and it will bring you all the items in the catalog or database that have the same subject assigned to them. 

Let's say you search the Library catalog using the keyword oil. Here's how the results would vary if you did a Subject Heading search or a Keyword search and used the facet to just look for books in the library.

screen shot of subject search

A Subject Heading search for oil found 23 books at the college. While this is a succinct list, when you review the titles you'll notice that the results are primarily focused on oil spills and not the uses of oil. These results may be off-topic for your paper if you are principally interested in oil as a fuel source, for example. A better Subject Heading search to find books about the use of oil as a fuel source would be for petroleum

How would you know to use petroleum instead of oil? Unless you are familiar with a subject, you wouldn’t. Sometimes, it's best to begin with a Keyword Search  - even though the results are less focused, when you do find something relevant you can see what the official Subject Heading is. Let's see what that looks like...

screen shot of anywhere search

The Keyword search for oil found 384 books at the college. That's a lot! You'll need to look at some titles to see what is about the topic you're interested in and what is not. Click a title to see the full record. With the full record displayed, look at the summary and note some additional keywords that you can use later when you search for articles. To narrow down this list of books though, look at the Subjects. Click on a subject to see only books about that topic - it will narrow your search greatly and bring back just a few titles. Much more manageable! Also, Subject Headings might offer related subjects that you hadn't considered before.

 

When you search a library catalog or database, you need to search using keywords. Keywords are terms that you think best represent what you're looking for. For best results, use keywords to do a Keyword search or Subject search in the Library Catalog or to search one of the databases for articles.

Even though you might when you search Google, you should never type in a full question when using a catalog or database because the resource will look for every word and will either find too little or too much. For example, a search for Why are kids on their phones all the time? will search for all 10 words as typed and will not find what you're actually looking for.

When selecting keywords, focus on nouns that best represent your topic. Also, think of synonyms and related terms or ideas.

Avoid informal terms (for example, instead of searching for kids, use the keyword children). Think about how things are referred to in articles or books. If you don't know, find one thing about your topic - an article, an encyclopedia entry - and look through it to note the terms that are used when an expert writes about the topic. 

Use at least two terms to describe what you are looking for so you're not overwhelmed with results.

Use the Boolean Operator AND to force the resource to retrieve items that contain all of the keywords you searched for. Otherwise, some resources will assume you meant OR and will find items that only contain some of your keywords. 

If you are searching for an exact phrase, use quotation marks. But be careful - quotation marks force the resource to find the exact keywords in the exact order you provide them. A search for "home schooling" will find items containing that exact phrase. A search for the keywords home schooling without the quotes will find the words separately anywhere they appear in the document - they could be next to each other or in different paragraphs discussing different things. 

These short videos from the University of Houston Libraries provide quick & easy explanations of keywords and how they influence your results. 

 

Creating a Search String

Once you select your keywords, you can:

  • Combine them in different ways using Boolean Operators to broaden or narrow your search
  • Use quotation marks to narrow your search by looking for your keywords as an exact phrase only
  • Use truncation to broaden your search by looking for all forms of a word

The resulting combination of keywords that you type into a search box is called a search string. An effective search string will get you just the results you're looking for.  

 

BOOLEAN OPERATORS: AND, OR, NOT

When searching for multiple keywords, you can control how those keywords are used to find records in the Catalog and databases.

If you are retrieving too many results, use AND between your search terms to narrow the results.

If you want to find as many results as possible, use OR to broaden your results.

If you want to remove unrelated terms from your results, use NOT to exclude a term from your results.

venn diagrams illustrating the use of boolean operators

QUOTATION MARKS

When you put quotation marks around 2 or more keywords, the resource will retrieve only those records that contain all of your keywords in that exact order (as a phrase). This will narrow your results but does not account for all the ways in which something may be referred to, so use knowingly. 

 

TRUNCATION

Using truncation will broaden your results by searching for every variation of a word. To do this, type the root of the word with an asterisk. For example, a search for educat* retrieves all records containing one or any combination of the words: 

  • educate
  • educates
  • educated
  • education
  • educational
  • educator 
  • educators
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