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Develop a Search Strategy

How do I create my search?

If you're a Google user (or Bing, Yahoo, etc.), you're used to searching the Internet. You know how to enter a phrase into a search box to find the information you want.

But have you ever had a Google/Bing/Yahoo search not return the results you were looking for? For example, let's say you want to search for the band Genesis. So, you open Google and search for Genesis. But, instead of getting results about the band, you get results about the car manufacturer. To narrow your results to the band, you edit your search to Genesis band and bingo! You've found what you wanted.

We'll apply those same principles to searching in the library.

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Identifying Keywords

Google uses natural language searching, which means you can enter a sentence or complete phrase into the search box to find what you're looking for. But most library databases don't offer this kind of searching. Instead, they rely on keyword searching, meaning you'll need to identify words or short phrases to search by. Let's walk through how to identify these terms.

We'll use this question as an example:

What is the impact of having media in the courtroom?

  1. Identify keywords in your current question. Keywords often consist of unique nouns and verbs, so we can extract impact, media, and courtroom as keywords from this example.
  2. Identify related alternative words (i.e., synonyms) for keywords. Similar words can help you find content that might relate to your topic but not use the exact same terms that you search for. (Hint: A thesaurus can be handy if you get stuck.) Adding related words expands your search.
    1. Impact: affect, effect, influence
    2. Media: journalist, journalism, newspaper, news, cameras
    3. Courtroom: court, trial

Combing Keywords to Create a Search

Now that you've picked out possible keywords, you'll want to put them into a search query, also known as a search string. Creating a search string is crucial as searching for all your keywords at once without formatting them first usually returns very few or zero results.

You'll want to combine your keywords using something called Boolean operators. Boolean operators tell the search or database what or what not to look for. Let's cover the three most common operations: AND, OR, and NOT.


The operator AND is used when you want your results to contain all the keywords in your search. In the real world, you probably use the operator AND regularly without realizing it. Looking back at our original example of the band Genesis, when we edited our Google search to Genesis band, we were really telling Google to search for Genesis AND band. This narrowed our results to items pertaining to the words Genesis and band.

We're going to do the same thing with our search about the impact of media in the courtroom.

media AND court
Results will include both the words media and court.

media AND court AND impact
Results will include the words media, court, and impact.

news AND courtroom AND influence
Results will include the words news, courtroom, and influence.


The operator OR is used when you want your results to contain this or that. This is commonly used when you wish to search for related words in your search.

media OR journalist OR reporter
Results will contain the word media, journalist, or reporter but may not include all words.

court OR courtroom OR trial
Results will contain the word court, courtroom, or trial but may not include all words.


The operator NOT is used when you want to exclude results from your results. It's common to use this operator once you've run a few searches but keep getting results for something that uses your terms but doesn't apply to the results you want.

media NOT social
Results will contain the word media but not the word social.

court NOT tennis
Results will contain the word court but not the word tennis.

" " (Quotes)

Use quotes to tell the database to search for those words in that exact order.

"court reporter"
The search will only return results that mention court reporter written in that exact format; it won't return results that mention court and reporter when they aren't used as an exact phrase.

* (Asterisk)

Use an asterisk to shorten or truncate a word to search for variations of the same word.

Results will include the word court, courts, courtroom, courtrooms, etc.

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