Skip to Main Content
site header image

Research Help: Getting Started

High Library's Virtual Reference Desk

Search Tips & Techniques

The following boxes each describe a method of searching. Experiment with them to find the method that works best for your search.

Keyword Search Tutorial

A brief overview of database search techniques.

Keyword Search

Free text, natural language or keyword searches are used with computerized databases and search engines.

  • Searches any and all fields of a computer record for the term
  • Every article that mentions the word will be retrieved


+ Excellent for new concepts or terminology
+ Will retrieve lots of results


- Must think of all other synonyms
- Results will often not be about your topic (your term was only mentioned in the article)

Subject Search

Controlled vocabulary, descriptors, index terms or subject headings are used in computerized databases.  Articles are analyzed and the content is matched to a limited number of specified terms.

  • Searches only the field specified by the search (subject, descriptor, etc.)


+ Results will be about your topic
+ No need to think of other synonyms


- If you don’t use the correct term, you could miss some or all pertinent information

Combine Keyword & Subject Searching

Combine keyword and subject searching for the best results

  1. Begin with a keyword search.
  2. Browse the results and look at the full record of an especially appropriate article.
  3. Scroll down to the subject headings/descriptors.
  4. Click on the best subject heading/descriptor link.
  5. Write down other listed subject terms and continue searching with those terms.

Boolean Searching

Boolean searching is a method of searching a database by arranging words in a specific fashion to retrieve the most accurate results. It uses Boolean operators within the search phrase as instructions for how to search for each word.


What are Boolean operators?

The three most common operators are AND, OR, and NOT

AND           Narrows              All of the search terms it connects must exist in each result.

                                                Elizabethtown AND College

OR              Expands             Any of the search terms it connects can exist in the results.

                                                Elizabethtown OR E-town OR Etown

NOT           Excludes            The search term following it cannot exist in the results.

                                                Elizabethtown NOT Movie

(   )             Combines          Use parenthesis to group terms together, if you are using a combination of operators.

                                                (Elizabethtown OR E-town OR Etown) AND College

“  ”             Specifies            Use quotation marks to indicate that terms are an exact phrase.

                                                “Elizabethtown College"


What else can you do with Boolean searching?

Databases each have their own set of operators for searching. Check out their help pages to discover your options!

Expand searches to find more

Try one or all of these strategies to expand a search

  • Change from a subject search to a keyword or default search
  • String synonyms together with an OR.
    • Instead of: women AND Iraq
    • Use: (women OR woman OR female) AND Iraq
  • Use a thesaurus to find different key concepts.
  • Use a broader term.
  • Use a truncation symbol to search for a base word with all of its various endings.  (Note that truncation symbols often vary between databases.)
    • ex: comput* retrieves records containing the following words: computer, computers, computing, computerization


 Adding search terms with "OR" can broaden your search.

Key Concept Additional Search Terms Type of Term
Women Female
"Muslim Women"
Iraq Name of a City
"Middle East"
Religion Muslim

Narrow searches to find less

Try one or all of these strategies to narrow a search

  • Change from a keyword or default search to a subject search.
  • Add another different key concept to your search.
    • Instead of: women AND Iraq
    • Use: women AND Iraq AND religion
  • Use a narrower or related term.
  • Use the filters/limiters available in advanced search options and to the left or above search results.


Limiting your search with filters narrows the search and decreases the number of results. Limiters and filters vary by database.

Limiter/Filter Effect Example
Publication year/date Limit for current events or historical events if this is an important aspect of your research project. 2001
Previous six months
Material type Limit results to material type. Article
Book review
Literature review
Language Limit results to only those languages you can read. English