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Library Research: Search terms & phrases

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

How to identify proper search terms and phrases

The basis of successful library research is identifying and using the best search terms or phrases.

Determine the best search terms:

How you describe something may not necessarily be the same term that will retrieve resources on your subject.  Resources are cataloged using controlled vocabulary terms called subject headings.  Subject headings are often nonintuitive and can use outdated terminology. 

This page offers several ways to help identify search terms, including using database thesauri, examining the subject headings and keywords assigned to relevant articles, and looking up Library of Congress Subject Heading authorities.

Relevant articles

Examine the abstract information of articles relevant to your research to discover the subject headings and keywords assigned to these articles so that you can use them in different iterations of your research.  For example, the article below lists many subject headings and medical subject headings (MeSH) that can be used in additional searches:




Learn how to use the thesaurus feature in ProQuest databases:




EBSCOhost Thesauri

EBSCOhost's databases have a thesaurus link at the top of the page. 


In this example from ESCBOhost's database Business Source Elite, there is a Business Thesaurus, which has browsing or searching options:




Determine the controlled vocabulary terms assigned to your topic:

For example, the Library of Congress Subject Heading for "Native Americans" is "Indians of North America":



Be sure to contact the librarians for assistance with this method: