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English 220: Introduction to Writing about Literature: Tips for searching databases

Database Search Tips



SEARCH TERMS : Identify Key Concepts

Identify key concepts and terms related to your topic area.

There may be just one concept or, much more likely, several concepts that you will need consider.

Within each concept, you will need to determine appropriate words or phrases, including synonyms, broader terms, related terms and narrower terms.  Revise this list during the actual search process by noting and using subject headings that have been assigned to relevant books and articles.

If you planning to do your research paper on “gender” in relation to Beat writers, other terms you might try may include sexmasculinity, or feminism.



If you start with a complicated search, you will probably retrieve a very small number of articles.

You are much better off to start with a general search and then refine your search from there.

Since you are researching various aspects of literary scholarship about Beat writers,  start with a simple search just on the terms "beat generation" or the name of an author.

Enter this one concept and analyze the results.
Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much information is available on my topic?

  • Are there better terms that I could be using?

  • Will I need to narrow or expand my topic?



Nearly all databases have an advanced search option that lets you to do sophisticated searches by combining the various concepts you have already identified for your search.

The advanced search mode will also allow you specify which fields you want to search, including author name, article title, publication title, subject, etc.



Articles and books in library databases and catalogs are assigned subject headings by people who review each document.

Each article or book is looked at carefully and then assigned one or more subject headings.

These subject headings are selected from a specific list of possible subject headings.

If a subject heading is used for one article or book on the topic, the same heading will be used for other articles or books on the topic.

Most books and articles are assigned several subject headings.

You can determine relevant subject headings by finding an article or two that deals directly with your research topic.

Then do a search on the subject headings assigned to those articles.
You can use the advanced search mode to search for your terms in the subject field.



When you want to combine search terms, you will need to use what are called Boolean operators or connectors. This is best done using the advanced search mode.

For example:  if you are researching ways to combat obesity, you need to split your search into two concepts:  combat and obesity.

Next, you need to connect these two terms with a Boolean operator.
Using the operator AND will retrieve articles that mention both terms somewhere in the article.

Using the operator OR between the two terms will retrieve articles that mention either term.

In this case, AND is the appropriate connector because you want to retrieve articles that address both concepts, combat and obesity.

The use of AND generally will retrieve a smaller set of results.

Use of Boolean operators allows you considerable flexibility in your search.

As another example, if you wanted to retrieve articles that dealt with either obesity or over weight, then the appropriate Boolean operator is OR.

The search obesity OR overweight will retrieve articles that mention either term.

The use of OR generally will retrieve a larger set of results.

OR is especially useful when you are searching with terms that are synonyms or that deal with the same basic concept.
Using the OR in your search will retrieve articles that contain any of the synonyms that you use.

If you wanted to exclude terms, you would use the Boolean operator NOT.

For example, if you were interested in the subject obesity, but not interested in how fast-foods relate to obesity, you could exclude all items that have the term fast-foods by searching obesity NOT fast-foods.

Effective use of Boolean operators is essential to sophisticated research.



Truncate search terms to retrieve all variants of a term.

Truncation symbols vary from database to database. Examples include: *, ?, !, % and $.

For example:  If you search on the term plagiar* in ProQuest, you will retrieve articles that contain any words that begin with the letters plagiar, including: plagiarism, plagiarize, plagiarizing, plagiarized, plagiarizer, plagiarizers, plagiarist, etc.

Using the truncation symbol will allow you to broaden your search to include materials on any variant of a term.

Most database search interfaces are not sophisticated enough to search for all variants of a term automatically.



Most databases have limiting features that will let you focus the results of your search.

You may be able to limit your searches to retrieve only scholarly or peer-reviewed articles.

You can also limit to particular date ranges or particular journals.

Many databases provide their own unique limiters, which allow you to limit by intended audience, item type (peer reviewed, journal or newspaper article ), language, country of publication and more.

Limiting your searches will allow you to narrow your search, resulting in a smaller list of more relevant materials.



  • NARROWING If you are retrieving too many articles, focus your search by adding terms, limiting terms to particular fields, or by limiting your searches.

  • EXPANDING If you are retrieving too few articles, expand your search by removing terms or searching for terms in keywords or full-text. Consider adding synonyms or similar terms to your search if the ones you are using aren’t very effective.

  • BE FLEXIBLE Above all, be flexible in your searching. If one term doesn’t work, try a different one. Approach your topic using as many search strategies as you can think of.


There will never be one perfect search for your topic. It may take dozens of searches to retrieve all the necessary information.

If you get stuck, don’t spend all day with a futile search. Instead, ask a librarian for assistance. We are here to help.


****Adapted from a Berkeley City College Library web page: