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Finding and Using Information: Get better at searching

Top Tips for searching

1. Don't just Google it!

Unlike in Google and in other search engines, you will not get satisfactory results if you type an entire assignment title, such as "the impact on energy prices in Ireland as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine". You need to pick out the key phrases, words, and concepts. So your search would look like this:

  •  Ukraine AND Russia AND "energy prices" AND Ireland

If you type several words without AND in between, some of the electronic databases will assume you want only items where those words appear right next to each other, and in that exact order. You use AND to combine keywords and phrases when searching the electronic databases for journal articles and you create a search phrase like "energy prices" by putting quotation marks around the words.

2. Be creative when thinking about your search.

Think of all the possible ways to express your topic. Brainstorm until you've exhausted all possibilities. An article about global warming may not have the phrase "global warming" anywhere in it. Instead, you may find that the title contains the words "surface temperature records" and a cataloguer has assigned it the subject heading "climate change."

To get the best results, use the word OR inside parentheses.

  •  (AIDS or HIV) and (television or movies or films or motion pictures)
  •  (teen* or adolescen*) and (girl* or female) and aggression

3. When searching for books, use broader terms than when searching for articles.

Subjects and keywords for books usually describe what the whole book is about i.e. the main topics, not every topic covered. In the article databases, the subjects will describe what the article (equivalent to chapter of a book) is about. This means you can sometimes do the "needle in a haystack" searches in the article databases. That kind of search rarely works as well in the library catalog. Be less specific when searching for book titles.

4. Don't limit yourself to just one library database

Begin your search on the library catalogue as that will direct you to databases relevant to your subject area.  Look at what databases are suggested or run your search in a database that covers many subjects e.g. Academic Search Complete. The same search entered in two different databases could bring up very different results. If your topic encompasses more than one major subject area-business and engineering, for example - try searching both a business database and an engineering database.

5. Get help from the library

Ask at the library's information desk for recommendations if you are not sure where to begin searching or how to search. The library runs classes on Searching Online Databases, sign up for one at a time that suits you. 

How to do better searches

Common problems when searching

When you are searching you will sometimes get far too many results, other times too few. Here's what you should do when that happens. 

Too many results...

  • Search in title or abstract for your key term
  • Refine by year
  • Identify key aspects of your topic area to focus on

Too few results...

  • Select some relevant the abstracts to brainstorm additional keywords
  • Add in these new keywords and search again
  • Use OR between words to expand your search