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History: Tutorial - Effective library research: 6. How do I search effectively?

This guide introduces you to the skills and resources required for effective library research for history.


To get the best results from online search services you need to input effective searches. The databases are not intelligent and will not understand your search topic. You need to devise and enter your search in a way that the databases can process to retrieve relevant search results for you. 

It is useful to think of this as a three step process:

  1. Identify your search terms
  2. Combine your search terms
  3. Use search techniques to enhance your search 
For effective online searching you need to invest time up front to develop a search strategy using a range of search techniques.

1. Identify your search terms

Think about the main topics/concepts of your research and produce lists of keywords that you could use to track down information on those topics.

Think carefully about suitable keywords and synonyms (alternative words that have a similar meaning) that will enable you to find manageable amounts of relevant material - not so many results that they are unmanageable and cause information overload, or so few that you retrieve insufficient information for you needs.

You may find it useful to use techniques such as brainstorming, words lists or mind maps to generate your keywords.


Watch this video for tips on how to identify keywords.

Are there any alternative words and/or phrases you should include in your search in order to improve your search results? 

For example:
If you were researching the impact of women working in factories in the 1st World War you could use the following keywords: women, factories, 1st World War, Britain etc.

You could also use the following alternative keywords:

females,  factory work, industry, employment, World War, Great War etc.


When you are searching the global literature think about differences in spellings and terminology, and incorporate alternatives into your search strategy. Truncation and wildcard symbols can help with this.

For example:   labour (British spelling)  vs. labor (American English spelling) 


Also think about differing terminology for the same subject. Subject terms and thesauri can help you with this.

For example:  holiday vs. vacation   /      land girls vs.farmerettes

Consider whether  your area of research uses subject specific terminology, technical terms or other controlled vocabulary.

Use these specialised terms in your searching to improve your results.

If you do not know the standard terminology then the database subject index or thesaurus may help.

Have acronyms or abbreviations been used in the sources you have read? 

 These can be included in your search terms in order to find matching results. 

For example: 

World War 1 OR WW1, World War 2 OR WW2

Great Britain OR GB, United Kingdom OR UK

Manuscript OR Ms.

Consider whether there are  key thinkers, writers, experts or analysts who are prominent or active in your research area.

It may be worth including these names in your searches. 

Your background reading will prove helpful here.   

If you are searching across time periods, particularly long time periods, remember that terminology changes over time.   New words appear, others change meaning so be prepared to reflect this in your search strategy.

For example:  

The First World War was often referred to as the Great War or the World War at the time. 

However, once the Second World War had started (and after) , the earlier war was also referred to as the First World War or World War 1.

This example illustrates how you might

1. pick out key terms from a research topic

2 break them down into keywords, alternative terms, variations and subject specific terminology that can be used for searching

2. Combine your search terms

It is possible to use a number of different keywords or search terms in a single search, by using operators. 

Operators link your search terms and define the relationship between them.

This enables more accurate searching and therefore more relevant results being returned. It also saves you time as you don't have to carry out numerous similar searches where just one or two search terms are changed each time.

The most commonly used operators are AND, OR and NOTThese are known as Boolean operators.



Watch the video below for tips on how to combine search terms. 


  Fig. 1                                                                                                                           Fig. 2

ANDORand NOT can be used to broaden or narrow a search and to exclude unwanted search terms and concepts.

You can type these operators in between your search terms (Fig. 1) or you can use the drop down options in the Advanced Search option (Fig. 2). Look at the help pages on the database you want to use for specific guidance.   

Databases usually process the Boolean operators in a logical order.

They typically recognise AND as the primary operator and will connect concepts with AND together first.

If you use a combination of AND and OR operators in one search, use parentheses (brackets) to group the OR words together so that your search is processed correctly.

For example:

If you want to find information on women working or women in factories, use the following instruction:

women AND (working OR factories)  - This will search for women AND working as well as women AND factories

If you do not use the parentheses and search using the following:

women AND working OR factories your search will be processed as:

  • women AND working as one search
  • OR factories as a secondary search - This means that your search results containing the word factories would not be linked in any way to women.

Of course, as the search stands, it will bring results relating to all periods of women and work. If you want to make the search more specific such as only listing results relating to women working in the Great war, then you can add another field and type in your additional search term/s.

Many databases offer the functionality to separate out your search terms, and this saves you having to add the parentheses. Sometimes you will have to access the Advanced Search for these options.

For example: In the Articles + more search via the Library Search, you can access the Advanced Search form for this functionality.

3. Use search techniques to improve your search

You can use search techniques to help improve your searching. By applying these techniques, you can increasereduce or improve the relevancy of your search results, making it easier to access to the right materials. For more, see the Search tips guide.

Phrase searching specif that your terms must appear next to each other, and in the order you specify. It allows you to quickly remove less relevant results from your search and this can be particularly useful if you are likely to bring up many thousands of results otherwise.

Phrase searching is commonly achieved by surrounding your phrase with quotation marks.

Always check the Database Help screens, as some databases may use different symbols.

Phrase searching examples:

"munitions factories"

"British Empire"

Truncation is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings.

To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.

The database will return results that include any ending of that root word.

The asterisk * symbol is most commonly used for truncation. However, check out the help screens as  !, ?, or # may also be used.


For example:
     histor* will find history, histories, historical, historian, historiology, historiography  etc.
     child* will find child, childrenchildlikechildhood etc.


Wildcards are similar to truncation but they are used to substitute for a single letter or no letter in a word.

They are useful for irregular plurals and for British/American English spellings.

They broaden your search by including variant word spellings.

The question mark symbol is most commonly used. However, check out the help screens as  ! , *, or # may also be used. 


For example:
     wom?n will find woman and women
     optimi?ation will find optimisation and optimization
     model?ing will find modeling and 

Proximity searching can help to both increase or narrow your results. It can increase your results when 

"phrase searching" is too restrictive.


WITHIN Operator - Wx

Finds words within x number of words from each other, in the order they were entered.

Substitute the x with the number of words that may appear between  
 Example: George w2 Bush

Would find George H.W. Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush 
Would not find Bush H.W. George Bush or W. George as the words need to be in the correct order
What are database fields?

Records in library catalogues and online databases are made up of fields containing pieces of bibliographic information which describe the item in details.

Fields differ between databases but common fields include:

  • author
  • title
  • journal title
  • abstract
  • publisher
  • date/year of publication
  • subject/descriptor

Why use field searching?

Field searching makes more search more focused and can be useful if you are overwhelmed by search results.

If you do not use field searching, databases usually run a keyword search against the full database record, leading to a very wide search.

For example, a keyword search for William Shakespeare will find items authored by William Shakespeare but also items that are about Shakespeare and his work.  An Author Search for William Shakespeare would be a more limited search.

You will usually need to use the Advanced Search option to easily access the field searching options.  

You can combine multiple fields using the boolean ANDORNOT operators.

Activity: Quiz

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