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Database Searching

Learn how to select a library database for your research topic and how to use the databases to find sources on your topic.

Why have a search strategy?

Before you search in a database, you need to think about your search strategy. There’s so much information out there that sometimes it can be overwhelming and difficult to find something relevant. Library’s work differently than Google. You cannot type full sentences into a Library database like you can with Google because Library's categorize information by subject terms and keywords. Here are some search strategies that can make finding information a little bit easier.

Choosing keywords

Keywords are the main ideas of your research question or topic.

You probably already use keyword searching in your daily life. For instance, if you want to know what movies are playing in theaters around you, your Google search might include your location (ex. New Paltz) and movie theater. The words you use to search are keywords!

Once you've developed a research question or topic, you'll want to identify the keywords. It might be helpful to circle or underline your keywords.

Sample research question: Does access to higher education affect recidivism (reoffending) rates for people in prison?

The keywords in this question are:

  • Higher education
  • Recidivism
  • Prison

Building a search string

Breaking down your research question into keywords is the first step in building a search string. A search string is the combination of keywords you will use in a library database.

  1. Identify synonyms for your keywords: Synonyms allow you to search for the many different ways people describe the same thing. For example, synonyms for prison include correctional facility, jail, penitentiary and detention center. 
  2. Using phrases: You may notice that some of your synonyms are phrases. To search for phrases in a library database add quotation marks - "correctional facility" and "detention center". This tells the database we are searching for a phrase and to not separate the words. 
  3. Searching multiple keywords at once: You can combine your different keywords and synonyms using the Boolean Operators: AND, OR, NOT. These three words are usually built into library databases but you can also manually add them to your search by capitalizing them. 
    1. AND is used when you want to find information about two or more things. Using AND can reduce your search results because the database is looking for resources with those words in the same source. For example, prison AND "higher education".
    2. OR is used when you want to find information about things that are synonyms. Using OR broadens your search results so you have more options. For example, prison OR "correctional facility".
    3. NOT is used when you want to find information that does not include a specific thing. Using NOT can reduce your search results because the database is looking for resources that uses one word but not the other. For example, "higher education" NOT "high school".

Check out the two videos below for more information.