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Tips for Searching Databases-Using Multiple Keywords and Subject Headings

Most library databases work on similar search principles: keyword/subject searching and the use of Boolean operators ( AND, OR, NOT) and truncation symbols ( * or $, depending on database)

Note: These are general guidelines. Please consult the Help screens in each database you use to determine what features are available and how they might be different from those described below, e.g., the truncation symbol may be a dollar sign ($) instead of an asterisk (*).

  • Identify keywords, both specific and more general, for your topic, then think of synonyms that could be substituted for your keywords. Remember to search for a broader subject term if you do not find any articles using a very specific term. Also, more general articles will often provide you with important information and context for your research.  Example: looking for the title of a painting may not give you any hits, but looking for material about the artist would, and within that, you will find context. 

    The name of the game in searching is to try different terms—you will find more information, often on the same topic,  just by using synonyms or broader terms.
  • Once you have some keywords and their synonyms, form a search statement and type it into the database search box. If you are using more than one keyword, you will need to place Boolean operators between the keywords, i.e., place and between keywords unless they form a phrase; place or between synonyms or "like" terms; use not to exclude terms. Examples:

    • paintings and jesus christ and crucifixion
    • (paintings or drawings) and jesus christ and crucifixion
    • (paintings or drawings) and jesus christ not crucifixion
  • Use the truncation symbol to search for variant endings of a word, example:

    • (paint* or draw*) and jesus christ and crucifi*  Use of the asterisk, or truncation symbol, will allow for automatic searching of all variations, such as painting, paintings, painter, painted, etc.
  • Keywords vs. Subject Headings: There is a Difference!
    • the use of subject headings (also known as descriptors) is the method by which an index or database has designated "official" terms or phrases for a topic
    • searching by keyword often can return many results, some of which may be irrelevant to your topic; subject searching focuses the search and returns fewer results; most, if not all, of them will be directly relevant to your search
    • keyword searching searches many fields, e.g., title, abstract, subject headings, whereas subject heading searching searches only the subject heading field
    • search first by keyword, find records which are relevant to your search, then look for the subject headings listed at bottom of the record. There are often several -- jot them down, then execute a subject search using those terms.
    • most indexes allow both keyword and subject searching