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You may think that you don’t need to learn how to search a library database, because you’ve had good luck searching Google (or another web search engine) to locate information. But searching a library database is not the same as searching for information using Google.
In Google, you can type a question in the same way you might ask it in a conversation, for example: What are the health benefits of regular exercise? This is called searching using natural language.
In a library database, however, you should search using keywords, and not natural language; statements or questions. Keywords are usually nouns, e.g. people, places or things. Don’t include words like why, what, where, when, if, the, etc. in your database search.
Before searching a library database, identify all the keywords in your topic, or research question. For the question above, you could start your search with the keywords health benefits exercise.
When searching for information in a library database or a search engine, you may want to combine some keywords, or exclude certain words, to ensure that your search results are more focused or relevant to your topic.
Boolean Operators (Operators), including AND, OR, and NOT, are words that make it easy for you to customize the results of your search.
TIP: In library databases, you don’t need to capitalize proper nouns (e.g. Twitter, Trudeau or Ontario), but Operators must be typed in all capital letters, e.g. NOT, AND, OR.
Using the AND operator tells the database that all words, or terms, that you have connected with AND must be found in any results returned.
If, for example, you are searching for articles about marketing with Twitter, you could search for: marketing AND Twitter. If either word (marketing or Twitter) is not found in an article, it will not appear in your results.
The Operator NOT will narrow your search results by excluding or removing a specific word or words from the search results.
For example, if you’re researching marketing but are not interested in articles about marketing using Twitter, you could search for: marketing NOT Twitter.
Your results from this search will not include any articles that contain the word Twitter.
For a broader search, to find articles that discuss marketing with Facebook or Twitter, you could use the Operator OR, e.g. marketing AND (Facebook OR Twitter). The results from this search will include articles that talk about marketing and Facebook, or marketing and Twitter, or marketing and Facebook and Twitter.
In the above example, you'll see that brackets are included in the search. When you are using more than one Operator in a search (e.g. AND and OR, or NOT and OR), you will need to group your keywords and operator words using brackets, so that the database knows which action to perform first. (You might remember this concept from Boolean Algebra).
When searching for an exact phrase, (i.e. exactly the same words in the same exact order), most library databases support the use of "quotation marks" (“ “) around the phrase, which could be two or more words.
Quotation marks instruct the database to return results that include that exact phrase. Searching for an exact phrase can help to reduce the number of irrelevant results.
For example, if you search for articles about body language, your results will include both words, but body might be on the first page of the article, and language on the last.
Searching for “body language” will only return results which include that exact phrase. Using quotation marks to search for an exact phrase will narrow down your results. Exact phrase searching with quotation marks will also work in Google.
There are, however, a few databases which do not recognize or support exact phrase searching using quotation marks. If you get no results, or too few, remove the quotation marks from your phrase and search again.
When keyword searching you may want to search for all variations of that word. You may miss relevant and useful results if the term you have searched for does not appear in that exact form in an article or book. Wildcard symbols can help you to find word variations.
A wildcard is a special character that replaces one or more letters in a word. Common wildcard symbol used in different databases include:
If you want or need to use a wildcard in your search, check the help section in the database you’re using to find the wildcard options. Wildcard examples include:
Let’s imagine we are searching for articles about house prices in Canada. If we search for those keywords only, house prices Canada, we may miss articles that include the words houses, housing, price, pricing, Canada’s or Canadians. If we truncate each word, we will get more results.
To ‘truncate’ a word simply means to shorten it by removing one or more letters to go back to the root word.
So, to search house prices in Canada, we could truncate all keywords and search for: hous* pric* Canad*.
You do need to be careful using when using truncation. Truncating too many letters from a word can lead to unexpected results. For example, searching for nursing in Canada using the truncated word nurs* will also bring back results about nurseries, and truncating Canada to Can* may retrieve articles with words like cantaloupe, cancer, canned, etc.