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CCCC Library: Research Tips

Tips and Tricks

Image result for search glass

Tip #1: Ask yourself what tools you already have; what do you already know how to do with searching?

Tip #2: Imagine what your sources will look like. Essay? News article? Image? Info graphic? By imagining what you might find, you expand the words you might use to search with. 

Tip #3: Your first and second (and possibly third) searches are STEPPING STONES. You most likely will not find what you are looking for on a first search so be patient. 

Tip #4: Once you do a search, ask yourself: what would my author/person think about this topic? This will help you generate key concepts, key words, and phrases.

Tip #5: If you have time, watch this webinar for more key tips and tricks (name and email to "sign up"): Webinar on Imagining Your Source

Boolean operators form the basis of mathematical sets and database logic.

  • They connect your search words together to either narrow or broaden your set of results.
  • The three basic boolean operators are: AND, OR, and NOT.

Why use Boolean operators?

  • To focus a search, especially when your topic contains multiple search terms.
  • To connect various pieces of information to narrow your results and find what you specifically need.
    • Example: Alexie AND "Flight Patterns" AND identity 

Use AND in a search to:

  • Narrow your results
  • Tell the database that ALL search terms must be present in the resulting records
    • Example: cloning AND humans AND ethics

The purple triangle in the middle of the Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search. It is a small set using AND, the combination of all three search words. This search is more specific than doing each term by itself or even two terms together. 

Credit: MIT.

Use OR in a search to:

  • Connect two or more similar concepts (synonyms)
  • Broaden your results, telling the database that ANY of your search terms can be present in the resulting records
    • Example: Alexie OR "Flight Patterns" OR identity

NOTE: you will get MORE results using Or than you would using And because you are saying this or this or that versus inclusion (this and this and that). 

What to look for: 

  • Root words: sun vs. sunshine; shed vs. shedding; child vs children 
  • Different spelling: color vs. colour; humor vs. humour
  • Using truncation is different depending on the database. Check each databases' "Help" page to determine how and if truncation will work. 



Truncation, also called stemming, 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.
  • Examples:
    child* = child, childs, children, childrens, childhood
    genetic* = genetic, genetics, genetically
  • Truncation symbols may vary by database; common symbols include: *, !, ?, or #


Credit: MIT.

Credit: MIT. 

Records in library databases are comprised of fields containing specific pieces of bibliographic information. Common fields include:

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

Narrowing your search results using "Advanced Search": 

  • Limiting your search to specific database fields can yield more precise results.
  • For instance, if you are looking for books by Adam Smith instead of about him, it is more efficient to limit your search to the author field.
  • To find various fields within a database, look for drop down boxes or menus to select the field you want to search.
  • Then combine words and fields together with boolean or proximity operators, depending on how precise you want to be.

What to look for: 

  • Different databases interpret searches differently. A common variation is how databases recognize phrases.
  • Some assume that words typed next to each other should be searched as phrases.
  • Others automatically put a Boolean AND between your search terms, requiring that all the words be present, but not necessarily adjacent to each other.
  • These searches can retrieve very different results.

Proximity Operators: 

Proximity operators also vary by database, but some common ones include:

w# = with

  • With specifies that words appear in the order you type them in.
  • Substitute the # with a number of words that may appear in between. If no number is given, then it specifies an exact phrase.
  • Examples:
    genetic w engineering (searches the phrase genetic engineering)
    Hillary w2 Clinton (retrieves Hillary Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, etc.)

n# = near

  • Near specifies that the words may appear in any order.
  • Substitute the # with a number of words that may appear in between.
  • Examples:
    cloning n3 human (retrieves cloning of humans, human cloning etc.)

Here I am searching the topic nursing and gender equality. I want the word "nurse" to be NEAR (n#) gender equality. 

What to look for:

Stop words are frequently occurring, insignificant words that appear in a database record, article or web page.

Common stop words include:

  • a
  • an
  • the
  • in
  • of
  • on
  • are
  • be
  • if
  • into
  • which

About Stop Words:

Why should you care about stop words?

  • Many databases ignore common words from your search statement.  If included, the database returns far too many results.
  • So you know which words to exclude from your search statement.
  • To make sure they are included if they are a significant part of your search.
  • Many databases recognize common stop words when they are part of the controlled vocabulary of subject headings and descriptors.  Example: balance of payments
  • Stop words vary by database. Check the Help screens for a list.

How can you avoid using stop words in your search?

  • In some databases, you can use techniques to include stop words as part of the search.
  • Some databases use quotes around stop words.  Example: Title keyword= out "of" africa retrieves title: Out of Africa
  • Choose the most significant words that describe your topic and connect them together using Boolean operators or proximity operators.

  • Search for your terms in specific fields, such as author, title or subject/descriptor.



A savvy online searcher is someone who uses common search techniques that can apply to almost any database, including article databases, online catalogs and even commercial search engines.

  • This is important because searching library databases is a bit different from searching Google.
  • The techniques described in this section will enable you to quickly retrieve relevant information from the thousands of records in a database.
  • When you search a database and do not get the results you expect, ask for advice.  Library staff are happy to help you find what you need.


Make a Research Coach Appointment by clicking the "Schedule Appointment" box below for individualized help!