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Library Research: Search tools & techniques

Learn how to expand or narrow searches, use nesting, phrase searching, truncation and wildcards, proximity, and more

Search tips & techniques

Some advanced search strategies that can save you time are:

Boolean operators & nesting

Boolean Operators are words used to connect search terms to narrow or broaden your results.

AND: Finds all search terms

Higher specificity, fewer results

OR: Find any search terms

More results (or = more)
A way to include synonyms - Generally used when nesting search terms

NOT: Exclude from results

  • Higher specificity, fewer results

"AND" - retrieves only articles that contain both leadership and educators

In general, all databases and search engines default to reading an "AND" between all words.









"OR" - Retrieves resources that include ALL search terms:



"OR" is generally used in a technique called nesting which involves combining synonyms with an "OR".  Some search engines require parenthesis around a nested string - Fielding's resources do not require the parentheses.

OR =  More (search results, that is!)  "OR" will find any and all articles that contain any of your search terms:


"NOT" should be used rarely and carefully.  It is used when you specifically wish to exclude a concept that keep showing up in search results.  For example: "cancer treatment NOT lung", if you wish to exclude any results that discuss lung cancer treatment.

Phrase searching

What do you do when you want to find a phrase like space shuttle Challenger?

Putting a phrase in quotes will tell the database to search for that exact phrase.

For example: "Space Shuttle Challenger"

This search will ONLY return items containing this exact phrase, and not items containing any of the words anywhere in the document.

If you searched for space AND shuttle, you could retrieve documents that mention space in one paragraph and shuttle in a completely different one. They could be far apart and unrelated.

Place quotation marks around phrases to search for them as exact phrases.

For example, a search for "systems theory" will retrieve documents that must mention systems theory as an exact phrase.

Longer names of articles, books, or journals, such as "Journal of health and human services administration" for example, would also be searched as complete phrases.

Nearly all databases, online catalogs, journal interfaces, and Internet search engines support quotation marks indicating phrase searches.

Truncation and wildcards

Truncation and Wildcards

You may be familiar with using the asterisk (*) symbol. This is the most common truncation symbol. Putting this at the end of a word stem will retrieve all the possible endings of that word.

For example: team* will retrieve team, teams, and teamwork, as well as teamsters.

Hint: Make sure you don't truncate too far, or you will get unrelated terms.

For example: cat* will retrieve cat and cats, but it will also retrieve caterpillar, catamaran, and catastrophe, to name a few!

Wildcards are a little trickier.

A Wildcard is a character that takes the place of any other character or string that is not known or specified. It is usually a exclamation point (!) or a question mark (?)

For example: a!m finds amalgam, atom and alum

wom!n finds woman or women

Note: Some of the databases use different symbols for truncation or wildcards. Check the help menu of the database you're searching to find out what symbols it uses.

Proximity searching

How do you search for a concept that could be expressed by different phrases?

Let's take this example: if you searched for "theories of personality," you would not retrieve documents mentioning personality theories, or theories involving personality, or theories about personality, or other similar phrases.

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to search for all of these? Proximity can help!

For example: systems n3 theory would search for systems within 3 words of theory, in any order.

nx is the proximity command where x can be a number. So, for example, systems n3 theory would search for systems within 3 words of theory, in any order.

Note: Different databases use different proximity operators. The above search can be expressed in all of these different ways - systems within 3 theory, systems ~3 theory, systems w/3 theory. Check the help menu of the database you're searching to find out what symbols it uses.

When you're using the database advanced search screens, you'll notice that some of them are already set up to search with parenthesis. When you join similar, equivalent, or related concepts with "OR" you want the database to recognize them as one broad concept.

For example: (coffee OR tea OR soda).

They are all caffeinated beverages - making them part of one overarching concept.