How To Do Library Research

Web pages and other resources for research assistance.

Understanding Keywords

Search databases using keywords, such as concepts or subject phrases, that are linked together by and, or, not  used to to identify articles and sources.   Once you have identified your topic, selecting your keywords is pretty simple.  

  1.  Divide your topic into concepts/segments/pieces.

    In the question, "How do the experiences of first-gen students compare based on socioeconomic status or race, ethnicity, culture, background?" The concepts are: First-generation students, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, culture. 
  2. Brainstorm for synonyms and related terms.

    You will need to translate these terms to keywords later when you are searching databases for articles and sources. Even if a combination of words works well in one database, you may have to change keywords to find results in another database. 


first generation



Related terms:


household income 

national origin 


first in family

financial aid 

historically under engaged

3. Create your search by combining your keywords using and, or, not.

    • And is used to narrow your search. Results returned will contain both sets of keywords.
    • Or is used to expand your search.  Results returned will return either keyword. 
    • Not will limit your search, and will exclude a keyword from the results. 

         You can also use parentheses to combine your search strings:

                     (first generation OR first-gen) and (socioeconomic OR financial aid)

4.  Follow the database-specific language.

As you do your searching, keep track of the words that appear in the detailed descriptions, or records, of your results list in the fields that will be labeled with headings such as subjects, descriptors, or subject headings.   These synonyms and related terms are the specific vocabulary used to describe your search term in that database or discipline.  Using these in your search can often improve your search results by making it more accurate and efficient/less time.

Tips and Tricks

Use quotation marks to search for exact phrases

Boolean Operators

  • AND narrows your results (because all search terms must be present in the resulting records).
    Ex: bridges AND history AND civil engineering (the black triangle in the middle of the Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search).
    Note: Most search engines and databases will assume your search terms are connected with AND.
  • OR broadens your results (because search results may contain either or both search terms).
    Ex: university OR college OR higher education (the entire Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search).
    Note: OR is especially useful if your search terms have synonyms.
  • NOT excludes results with whichever search term follows it.
    Ex: mercury NOT planet (the dark green section in the Venn diagram represents the result set for this search).
    The order of your search terms matters when using NOT (results with the second search term will be excluded).



Search for words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other.

  • Proximity operators are composed of a letter (N or W) and a number (to specify the number of words). The proximity operator is placed between the words that are to be searched
  • Near Operator (N) – N5 finds the words if they are within five words of one another regardless of the order in which they appear.
  • Within Operator (W) – W8 finds the words if they are within eight words of one another and in the order in which you entered them. Ex: the results for tax W8 reform would include “tax reform” but would not include “reform of income tax”.


  • Truncation is represented by an asterisk (*)
  • Enter the root of a search term and replace the ending with an *
  • Ex: comput* finds results with computer, computing, computation, computational, etc.
  • Truncation can also be used between words (ex: a midsummer * dream will return results that contain the exact phrase, “a midsummer night’s dream”)


  • A wildcard is represented by a question mark (?) or a pound sign (#)
  • Using ? as a wildcard will only return results in which the wildcard is replaced by another character (ex: ne?t will find results containing neat, nest or next, but it will not find results with net)
  • Using # as a wildcard will return results with or without an extra character (ex: ne#t will find results containing neat, nest, or next as well as results containing net)

Types of Information

One of the questions you will ask yourself during the search process is What type of information will best help me answer my questions?  Thinking about the type of information you are looking for will determine how you search for that information, where you look for it, and what tools you use.

Examples of different types of information and where to find it include:

You may also want to consider sources outside of your traditional library such as archives and Special Collections, interviewing knowledgable individuals, businesses, etc.

Publication Cycles

Also consider the publication cycle of information. If you are seeking information on a very current or timely topic, then scholarly articles and books addressing the topic may not be available, but newspaper articles and popular articles may be reporting on the topic because they can be published much faster.

Social media and breaking news coverage will be available on very current topics, but due to the nature of breaking news, accuracy of the information may vary widely.

For more information on understanding the publication cycle, you can can take the online tutorial on Defining and Comparing Different Publication Types.