Search Techniques

Search Techniques

Searching library resources like the catalog, databases, and QuickSearch is not exactly like using an internet search engine. More sophisticated searching makes it possible to sort through large amounts of material to find exactly what you need, but some of these features may be unfamiliar. Understanding some commonly used search techniques will give you a better chance of success when researching.


Use truncation to look for multiple variations of a word at once. This can help broaden your search when you get too few results. An asterisk (*) is the most commonly used wildcard, but some databases may use a different symbol (look for a help page to find out).

Example: A search for teach* will retrieve teach, teacher, teaches, teaching, etc.

Phrases in quotation

Search for phrases by putting them in quotation marks. This works great for compound terms, but putting lengthy phrases in quotes may result in few results.

Examples: "death penalty"  "gun control"  "special education"  "cold war"

Boolean logic

Much of database searching is based on Boolean logic, which is commonly used in computer programming. Boolean logic refers to the relationship among search terms. It includes three operators: OR, AND, and NOT.

  • OR broadens a search. It retrieves items with AT LEAST ONE term present. The more synonymous terms you combine, the more items you will retrieve.

Example: college or university retrieves items that contain college, university, or both terms

  • AND narrows a search. It retrieves items with BOTH terms present. The more terms you combine, the fewer items you retrieve.

Example: poverty and crime retrieves items that contain both poverty and crime, not items with just one or the other

  • NOT also narrows a search. It retrieves items with ONLY ONE term present. Be careful when you use NOT. The term you want may be present in documents that also contain the word you wish to avoid.

Example: cats not dogs retrieves items that contain “cats” and excludes items that contain “dogs”, including those that contain both “cats” and “dogs”


Many advanced searches will give you the option to limit your search with certain criteria. The most commonly used are limiting to a certain date range or to only scholarly/peer-reviewed materials. Other options may include language, location, material type, subject, and more. Look for limiters on advanced search forms or on the results page, usually in the left-hand column.


Because of the structured nature of information in databases, it is also possible to specify where you would like your search terms to appear. A familiar example might be looking up a book by its title vs. by its author. In many databases it will also be possible to restrict your search to the abstract, publication name, subject headings, etc. The option to select a field is often found in a drop down menu to the right of the search box.