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Library Introduction for PE 1001 Orientation: Search Basics

Identifying Search Terms

Before you begin using a library database or search engine, it is a good idea to write down all the keywords and phrases that describe your topic or the information you are seeking. You should also write down any synonyms or related terms. These keywords and phrases can be your search terms.

Example: Does television viewing encourage aggressive behavior in children?

A simple search can be: television AND "aggressive behavior" AND children
A more complex search can be: television and (aggressive OR aggression OR fighting) AND (children OR adolescents OR teenagers OR "young people")

Adapted from Library Instruction - Package Two - 75 Minute Session by J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College Library.  Used with permission.

Exact Phrase Seaching

To look for an exact phrase, use quotation marks (" ") around the keywords.

Example: "attention deficit disorder”

Note: this works in most search engines as well. If you type an exact phrase without quotations when doing a basic search, most search engines will look for each word separately. This means your result list will include web pages that not only contain the exact phrase (ex: attention deficit disorder) but also web pages that contain a word or words from the exact phrase appearing separately (ex: attention may appear in one paragraph or sentence and disorder will appear in another paragraph or sentence).

Adapted from Library Instruction - Package Two - 75 Minute Session by J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College Library.  Used with permission.

Keyword Search

A keyword search retrieves words or phrases from the important fields of the database records. In most databases a keyword search finds words in fields that have descriptive content, such as author, article title, source title (book, journal, magazine, or newspaper) subject/descriptor terms, and abstract. In some databases, additional fields may be included in the keyword search. And in other databases, a keyword search will search everything in every record.  Some keyword search engines allow you to specify which field(s) to search.

A keyword search usually retrieves more items than a subject search, but they may not all be relevant. The computer is looking for the exact word you typed, not for the meaning or context of the word.

For example, a search on cowboys will retrieve items on...

  • people who rope steers
  • football players

Or a search for Cherokees will return information on . . .

  • Native Americans
  • Jeeps

A keyword search is the best method to use when:

  • You are beginning your research
  • You are searching for a new trend or concept
  • You are not sure of the correct subject heading
  • The database does not have subject headings
  • You are looking for specific factual information

 Some search tips:

  • Use only significant words, not common words, such as the, of, an, and that.
  • Avoid using phrases such as "people with diabetes", or whole sentences, such as "How do people buy cigarettes if they are under 18?"

Adapted from Library Instruction - Package Two - 75 Minute Session by J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College Library.  Used with permission.

Subject Heading Search

A subject search involves searching with the subject headings assigned to material in a database. 

Subject headings (also called descriptors) are standardized or uniform terms used to describe the contents of a database.  Having a list of subject headings (called a database thesaurus) ensures that the same term is used to describe all items about the same topic. Users can then retrieve all of the items on that topic using one word or term, even when there may be several other ways to state the concept.

By using the subject heading, you will retrieve every relevant item for your topic. Searching with a subject heading retrieves items ABOUT that particular topic, and it is a more precise search than a keyword search.  Most databases include subject headings that are assigned to each record.

For example, you may want to research the topic death penalty.

Possible ways (synonyms) to state this topic include: 

  • Death Penalty
  • Death Sentence
  • Death Warrant
  • Execution
  • Electrocution
  • Capital Punishment
  • Hanging
  • Cruel or Unusual Punishment
  • Death Row
  • Lethal Injection

In the library catalog (Encore) and the Academic Search Complete database, the subject heading for death penalty is capital punishment, but the same term may not be used in other library databases.

The thesaurus for the library catalog (Encore) is called Library of Congress Subject Headings. If you would like to consult this resource, or if you are unsure whether a particular database has a thesaurus, just ask a librarian.

Adapted from Library Instruction - Package Two - 75 Minute Session by J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College Library.  Used with permission.