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Keyword Searching 101: Getting Started

The very basics of library search engine research


Keyword Searching 101

When you begin your library research, the quality of your findings will rely heavily on the keywords that you use; you want to be very strategic to maximize your efficiency.

A keyword search comes up with an exact match of the word(s) that you type into the search box. The search engine will be searching through a mix of titles, tables of contents, notes, abstracts, and subject fields in the catalog record.

For example, if you search for the keywords “Argentina and fascist,” there is a chance that the results might not include a book titled Transatlantic Fascism: Ideology, Violence, and the Sacred in Argentina and Italy, 1919-1945, which is a very prominent work in the field of Argentine history. This is because you asked the search engine to look for the word “fascist,” not “fascism.”  You would only find this book listed in your results if the word “fascist” was listed somewhere in the online record, perhaps in the subject headings field.

In order to avoid this potential pitfall, it is best to begin by performing a little word association.

In the above example, you would need to think of both the words “fascist” and “fascism.”  You might even come up with other related words, such as “authoritarianism” or “totalitarianism” or “dictatorship.”

Of course, using associative or synonymous words had probably already occurred to you… But it must be reiterated: a good researcher has to employ an expansive vocabulary in his/her searches!

Another way of working around the issue of exact-word matching is what we call BOOLEAN searching.  Boolean searching allows you to combine words and phrases using the words “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT” (known as Boolean operators) to limit, broaden, or define your search.

Important to remember: Many search tools require Boolean operators to be fully capitalized, so it’s best to always enter them in all caps.

Again, using “AND” between keywords will narrow down your results to only those that contain both of your desired words or phrases; it won’t display any results that contain only one of your criteria without the other.

On the other hand, using “OR” will expand your search results so that they all contain at least one, if not more, of your desired words or phrases.  “OR” is actually very useful because it will allow you to include various synonyms for a given title, phrase or word.

And lastly, using “NOT” will help you narrow your search by excluding whatever it is that you type after it.

For example, if you wanted to look for any materials on the Cold War in Latin America, but exclude Argentina, you could enter the following into a search box:

Latin America AND Cold War NOT Argentina

HOWEVER, this isn’t a guarantee that you won’t get any material that touches on Argentina, especially since Cold War-era conflicts were prominent in that country. This search only guarantees that the word “Argentina” does not appear in the titles, descriptions, tables of contents, or subject headings of the results.

These are the Boolean operators, which are pretty useful, but perhaps not as useful as modifiers. Boolean Modifiers are characters that allow you to modify your search queries for specific purposes. The 3 characters, or modifiers, are: asterisks, parentheses, and quotation marks.

Asterisks, sometimes called “wild cards,” allow you to truncate words, or chop up a word, so that you can search for many forms of a word in one step.  For example, if you are researching some aspect of childhood, you could include an asterisk after the root word, which in this case is “child.” Searching for “child*” will not only yield results containing the word “child,” but also “children,” “childhood,” “childlike,” “childish,” and so on.

You could also potentially have some luck using fragments of words.  For example, typing famil* could yield results containing “family,” “families,” “familial,” etc. Or Europ*, without the “e” at the end could also lead to a lot of good results.  Another possibility is typing fasci*, which would give you fascism, fascist, fascistic, and so on.  But it’ll also give you “fascination,” or “fasciitis,”… so, again, be as strategic as you can be.

The next Boolean modifier, quotation marks, can be used when you want results that contain an exact phrase.  For example, if you searched for “National Reorganization Process,” you would get only results that contain those words in that order.  If you don’t use quotation marks around phrases, each word in the phrase will be treated separately as if you had used AND between each word.

The last Boolean modifier, parentheses, are used to prioritize the words contained inside of them over those outside.  Once the search engine resolves the parenthetical content, it’ll move on to the rest of your entry.

For example, if you typed this query:

(Novel OR Film OR Comics) AND “National Reorganization Process”

… the search will return results that contain at least one of the keywords within the parentheses as well as the phrase “National Reorganization Process.”