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Intro to Library Research: Search Like a Pro

This guide is a starting point for doing research at Wardman Library, finding and evaluating scholarly resources, and getting additional writing help.

Database vs. Search Engine

A database is an online repository of organized information. The information in a database is organized by information such as author names, subject headings, keywords, dates, publishers, titles, etc. Examples include: JSTOR, EBSCOHost, the library catalog, etc.

A search engine, on the other hand, is a digital tool used to find information. They do not actually contain (or often own) the information being searched. Examples include: Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Google Scholar.

Why You Should Use Library Databases

Our friends at Yavapai Community College created this tutorial to explain why you should use library databases instead of the open web for research.

Search Operators Cheatsheet

Use these operators to fine tune your search results. Not all databases use these, but many do. When in doubt, check the database's "Help" pages for additional information on which operators to use.


AND:   "global warming AND carbon"  (searches for articles that contain both phrases)

OR:      "global warming OR climate change" (searches for articles that contain either phrase)

NOT:     "global warming NOT Al Gore" (searches for articles on global warming that do not mention Al Gore)


An asterisk (*) can be used as a substitute for one or multiple characters at the end of a word. A question mark (?) can be used to replace a single character anywhere within a word. Examples:

environment*  (searches for environmental, environment, environments, etc.)

politi*  (searches for politics, political, politicians, etc.)

wom?n  (searches for woman or women)

Additional Tips for Generating Keywords

Use your course readings: Take a look at your required readings and the bibliographies/references listed at the end. What essential words are used in the titles of these works?

Discover subject headings: Found at least one book or article that is relevant to your research? Take a look at the subject headings used in the library catalog (for books) or databases to describe the item and use those for search terms instead.

Use a thesaurus: Find additional synonyms and related terms for your topic using a thesaurus.

Use Advanced Search

Generating Search Terms

Click on the green center arrow below to begin the tutorial. (text version | more info)

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Not Enough Results?

Quite often, you may search for something in a library database and get no results. Don't fret. Here are some tips for expanding your search.

  1. Use fewer search terms: Remove any unnecessary words from your search (e.g. prepositions, articles of speech, common terms, etc.) and focus on using only 2-3 essential terms that an author would use to describe your topic.
  2. Use fewer search limiters: If you are limiting your results by subject or date, try removing those limits. Additionally, if you are limiting results to only full-text, remember that it may be possible to find certain articles in other databases even if the one you're currently using doesn't provide full-text access.
  3. Use different search terms: Remember that authors can use any number of terms to discuss a topic (e.g. neglect, maltreatment, abuse, negligence, violence). Mix and match your search terms until you begin to see search results more relevant to your topic.
  4. Try a different database: Not every database contains the same type of information. We have databases dedicated to specific subjects (e.g. history, literature, psychology, etc.) as well as specific formats (e.g. newspapers, books, articles, music recordings, etc.). See our Databases by Subject page for additional suggestions.

Additionally, be aware that some information may not be found in scholarly articles and books (e.g. very recent events, raw data, copyrighted images). If you are unsure of where to go for specific types/formats of information, contact a librarian for help.

Too Many Results?

While it may be comforting to get thousands of search results from a database, having too many results will not do you much good if the article/book you're looking for is at the end of the list. Here are some tips for narrowing your search:

  1. Use additional search limiters: Use the search limiters in any database to narrow your search results by publication date, subject, document type, or language. You can also limit results to peer-reviewed (scholarly) and full-text articles. These search limiters are usually in the right- or left-hand column beside your search results or below the search box on the "Advanced Search" page.
  2. Use more specific search terms: Instead of searching for general topics like "history" or "gender",  search for more specific terms like "battle of the bulge"  or "lgbt legal rights." Try to imagine the specific words an author would use to describe your topic.
  3. Add additional search terms: Usually, one or two words/phrases are not enough to find every item that discusses your topic. Use Boolean operators (see above left) to add additional words to your search, e.g. ("climate change" OR "global warming" AND "precipitation")
  4. Narrow your topic: Your topic may be too broad. Ask yourself, "What specific questions am I trying to answer? What specific evidence would support my claim?" Is there a particular aspect of your topic that you are most interested in exploring? For example, instead of searching for information on climate change, you could explore how climate change has specifically affected water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.
  5. Search more specific fields: By default, many search engines search for your keywords in the title, abstract, subject headings, and full-text of the article. Try limiting your search to just the title and/or abstract. You are more likely to find a relevant search result if the word you are searching for is in the title or abstract of the document.