What is your topic? What are you hoping to say about your topic in your paper? Do you have a research question you are trying to answer, or a thesis you want to prove? You need to know enough to recognize a good source when you find one. If necessary, try doing some background research in a database like CREDO Reference to get a good overview of your topic before doing any further searching.
2. Use only the keywords
Searching in the library’s databases requires a different strategy than search engines like Google. Databases take all the words you enter into the search box, and return the results which use the most of those words the most times. Successful searches therefore do not include any words that are not necessary.
Do this: prison reform
Not this: What is prison reform?
3. Connect keywords with AND, OR, NOT
Once you have just the keywords, improve your search by telling the database how those words connect:
Connecting two keywords with AND narrows your search by returning only results which include both keywords.
Ex: Prison reform AND private prisons
Connecting two keywords with OR broadens your search by returning results which include either keyword. Use this for synonyms.
Ex: Teenagers OR adolescents OR young adults
Connecting two keywords with NOT narrows your search by returning results which include the first term but do not include the second term. Use this for words with multiple meanings.
Ex: Apple NOT technology (if you are interested in the fruit rather than the tech company)
4. Use "" () and *
Use these punctuation marks to further improve your search:
"" Putting quotation marks around a phrase tells the database to search for the entire phrase: those words, in that order. This is good for quotes, titles, or other phrases you wish to find in your sources.
Ex: "Black Lives Matter"
() Use parentheses to help the database search in the correct order, similar to the use of parentheses in algebra.
Ex: If you search for teenagers OR adolescents AND Instagramthe database will return results that mention either teenagers or adolescents AND Instagram, which isn't what you meant: it's not connecting teenagers with instagram.
Searching instead for (teenagers OR adolescents) AND Instagram fixes this problem: all results will mention either teenagers or adolescents and the word Instagram.
* Use an asterisk to truncate (shorten) words with lots of different endings. The database will search for all words that begin with what you type before the asterisk.
Ex: Librar* will return results which mention: librarian, librarians, libraries, library
5. Use database filters to improve your results
Once you have an initial list of search results, use the database's filters to improve those results. Common filters include:
seeing only particular material types, like only books, only peer-reviewed academic journal articles, only newspaper articles, etc.
date filters, to only see materials published before or after a certain date, or within a certain range of dates.
language filters, to only see results written in a particular language.
location filters, to only see results available at a particular campus library, or in a particular journal or database.
Like Google, library databases sort results by relevancy: how well each result matches what you searched. However, that doesn't mean that the first result is necessarily the best result, or the only result worth using! Results might appear lower down on the list because they use your keywords slightly less often, but actually turn out to be more useful to you than the top result. Look through at least the first 25-30 results.
If the results overall do not seem particularly useful, try revising your search by using other keywords.
7. Read beyond the title
Item descriptions, abstracts, publication dates, can all tell you more about your source’s potential usefulness:
Was the source published by a well-respected publisher or journal?
Is the source current, or out-of-date?
What are the main topics discussed in the source?
8. Ask: who is the author? Who are they writing for?
Do not trust a source until you know who wrote it and why. Google the author and/or the publisher/website. What do people say about them? What is their reputation? What credentials do they have that make you think they know what they are talking about?
9. Use one good source to find more
Once you have found a source you really like, use it to locate other good sources:
Check out the bibliography/references list at the end: did they cite sources that you might want to find and use?
Does the source's description or abstract use terms you can use as keywords in further searching?
What subjects have been assigned to this source by the database? Try doing searches using these searches.
Some databases list related articles/topics. Check those for useful sources or search terms.
10. Save and organize your sources
Good searchers only need to search for each source once. Make sure you collect enough information about your source that you can use and cite it later, and keep all of that information together in one spot. Suggested organization strategies:
Log into your library account to pin search results you like. You can access your pinned sources later.
Get a citation for each source from the library's citation generator tool, and copy-paste all of your citations to a Word/Google document (watch a how-to video).
Copy-and-paste permalinks from each source to an email, document, or notes app (watch a how-to video).
Print out a copy of the full article and make a note of where you found it: URL, database name, etc.
How you organize is up to you, but save yourself a lot of frustration later by saving what you find somewhere you can easily find it later.