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Narrowing Your Search Results: Home

Search Like a Librarian

There is no secret formula for searching library databases. Even for seasoned librarians, it can be a time consuming, circular process of trial and error. Many students believe there is one perfect source out there to answer their research prayers if only they knew how to find it,  but that is simply not true 99% of the time. Usually, you will have to try a variety of keyword combinations, limiters, and databases to find sources that may only help with one aspect of your research. You have to figure out how you can glean the information you need from a variety of sources, and how to piece these together with your own thoughts and ideas to create your final document. But, there are techniques you can use to become a better, more effective and efficient searcher.

The main techniques for narrowing search results are:

  • Boolean AND
  • Boolean NOT
  • Phrase Searching
  • Subject headings
  • Limiters
  • Narrower terms

Narrowing Results

Boolean AND basically means combining keywords or phrases with AND. This is a very simple and effective technique for narrowing your search results. The more keywords or phrases you connect with AND, the fewer results you will get. This is because you are telling the database that all of those words or phrases must be included in your search results. This allows you to be very specific and focused when searching. 

An example is:    A student is writing a paper on the history of tourism in Yellowstone National Park. A search using Boolean AND might look like this:

"Yellowstone National Park" AND tourism AND history

Boolean NOT is used to exclude a search term from your results. For example: electric cars NOT Tesla

Phrase Searching: If you are searching a phrase and you want to make sure the database recognizes it as such, place quotation marks around the phrase. This is especially true when you are searching Google. Google automatically assumes an AND between each word unless you use quotes. 

For example: If you are looking for information on library's summer reading program, you should put quotes around 'summer reading program" to indicate it is a phrase. Otherwise, the database or search engine may look at those as individual keywords that could appear in your search results in any order.

Subject headings basically means the preferred language a database uses to describe a topic.  For example, you might type in self-driving cars, but the database uses the phrase electric cars.  Using the correct language the database uses for your topic can narrow your search and eliminate irrelevant articles. 

Limiters are built into a database and allow you to narrow your search results by a variety of parameters such as date, full-text, scholarly sources, etc. 

Another way to narrow your search is to use a narrower term to describe your topic. For example, instead of school or education you might say college, university or higher education.