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Introduction to Library Research

Search Tips

Understanding and Using Search Strategies

Searching any database can be more effective by understanding and using a few basic search strategies. Databases vary in the way you have to type in these strategies, so be sure to either check out the database help screens or ask a reference librarian.

1. Know the difference between subject vs. keyword searching.

2. Know what truncation is and how to use it to expand your search.

3. Know how to use Boolean Operators (connectors) — AND, OR, NOT — to increase, decrease or have more precise results.

4. Know how to nest terms for grouping search terms.

5. Know how to do field specific searching to make your search more precise.

Subject Vs. Keyword Searching

Subject Searching

When an article is indexed in a database, it is given subject headings that describe what information is covered. Subject headings are limited to a set of terms developed by the company that produces the database. To know what terms are "subject" headings, check to see if the database provide a Thesaurus or a List of Subjects.

PRO: Authors use different terms when writing about the same concept (cars, automobiles, motor vehicles, etc.). Rather than thinking of every possible synonym, find and use the subject heading for that concept to retrieve all relevant articles, regardless of the terms authors may use.

CON: There may not be a subject heading for your concept or it may be difficult to find one that exactly fits your concept.

Keyword or Phrase Searching

In a keyword search the database generates a list of articles that can have the term or phrase anywhere in the record for that article ... in the title, author, abstract or even in their subject headings.

PRO: Sometimes a concept may be a narrower aspect of a broad subject heading (text comprehension is a specific aspect of reading). Searching "text comprehension" as a keyword phrase saves you the time of wading through all the articles on "reading" that don't deal with text comprehension.

CON: Keyword searching usually retrieves a lot of articles but not all of them will use the keyword in the context you want. For example, a keyword search using "reading" might also get you articles on business management by an author named George Reading.

NOTE: When in doubt, try both kinds of searches, subject and keyword! It only takes a couple of seconds to try both to see which gathers the best results for your particular topic!


Truncation allows you to search for a root form of a word and pick up all variations of that term. Truncating broadens your search and ensure that you retrieve all items containing some form of that word.

teen* will retrieve articles with the terms

  • teen

  • teens

  • teenager

  • teenagers

A word of warning! Truncating a word too short can retrieve too many unwanted terms.

If you want all forms of the term culture, and you type cul* your articles will contain terms that you don't want:

  • cults

  • cultivate

  • culinary

  • culminate

  • culotte

  • culprit

The best way to truncate culture is cultur*

Boolean Operators

The search engine of online journal indexes are based on a system of combining terms using Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to control the results of your search. To use two or more Boolean operators, you need to know how to use a technique called nesting.

  • Use AND to narrow a search since both terms must be present in the articles you retrieve.

children AND adolescents

The black area represents only those articles that have both children and adolescents present.

  • Use OR to expand a search. Your search will retrieve articles with EITHER of the terms. OR is most often used to combine synonyms or like terms.

  • Use NOT to exclude a term. Articles with the first term will be retrieved. Articles with the second term will not.

In the diagram below, results are represented by the green areas.

diagram of boolean logic



Nesting involves using parentheses so the search engine will perform the Boolean operations in the sequence you intend. This technique allows you to build a complex search using two or more operators (AND, OR, NOT, NEAR, WITH).

risk* AND (adolescents OR teenagers )

In this search the OR operation is nested and will be performed first. Then the AND operation will be performed. The search results are represented by the yellow i.e. articles on risk taking or risky behavior and adolescents as well as items on risk taking or risky behavior and teenagers.

Field Specific Searching

Another way to refine a search is to limit your search to a field. A field is an record element containing a specific type of information about a journal article. Some examples of fields are:

  • title

  • author

  • subject or descriptor

  • journal or source

  • publication date

  • abstract

  • full-text indicator

When to Use Field Specific Searching

1. When you want articles from a particular journal (JN psychology today.......SO journal of abnormal psychology)

2. When you want information from a specific year or range of years (PY 2000-2007)

3. When terms specified as subject headings or descriptors would be better than keywords (SU education)

4. When you want to see all the works of a particular author in the database (AU decaprio)

4. When you want to only retrieve items that appear in the title of the article ( TI text comprehension)

To find out how to do a field-specific search in a particular database, check the database's Help screens or ask a reference librarian.

Getting the Articles You Want

There are several tools to use for getting articles: Full text Databases, UMass Lowell E-Journal Search and our Library Catalog.

Full-text Databases and LinkSource

In our indexes the phrase " Linked Full Text shows that the full-text is available directly from the index vendor.

  • If the catalog listing has the "Full Text Finder" link, it means the article may still be available in full text in a library database, if not, you are offered a link to Interlibrary Loan to request the article.

  • 2. Be sure the computer you are using has the necessary software (e.g. Adobe Acrobat Reader) to view and print out some types of full-text articles.

UMass Lowell E-Journal Search

If you know the name of a journal you want to search, use the Journal by Title tab on the library home page. Click on the "Ebsco Full Text Finder" link. The landing page offers a field where you can type in your journal title. If the library owns it, it will appear in the list that auto-populates. If the title is not there, the library does not subscribe to it. 

Paper Copies

Journals not available electronically may be available at UMass Lowell in paper or microfilm format. If you need an article in the catalog which is designated as in print, go to the circulation desk at Lydon Library for help.

All the bound journals are at Lydon; they are in storage and you must ask at the circulation desk for someone to go and get the volume you want.

  • Select Journal by Title and Ebsco Full Text Finder; type in the journal name.

  • Paper copy holdings are listed first e.g. v. 10- 1980- means we own from volume 10, 1980 to the present

  • Make note of the call number of the journal e.g.BF321.Z9.


If you need to view microfilm, the Center for Lowell History has three microfilm machines. See the link for full information on how to access these machines.

Using Article Quick Search

Article Quick Search is the name of the search engine for the library's journal content. It includes both titles the library owns and some it does not. If the library does not have access to an article, request it through Interlibrary Loan. Be sure first that the library does not own the title!