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Searching Techniques: Search Strategies

Learn how to refine your searches and use other advanced techniques to improve your results when looking for library resources.

Subject Index

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Getting beyond the keyword

When you enter text into the library discovery service search box, you're doing a keyword search. The computer looks for the words anywhere in the catalog records -- author, title, subjects, notes, and call number. The results list simply tells you that the selected text appears somewhere in the record.

There are advantages and disadvantages to keyword searches. They're easy to do, and usually provide lots of results. But they can give you results that aren't what you want, and sometimes don't find relevant results because you're not using the best words.

Learning a few additional search techniques can help you focus your search to get the best results. We'll go over some of them here:

1. Enclose phrases in quotation marks

When you enter more than one word into a keyword search, the computer simply looks for records that contain each of those individual words -- whether or not the words appear next to each other. If those words actually are a phrase, put them in quotation marks and you'll get better results. 

2. Use the Advanced Search feature

You might know that you're looking for a book written by a particular author, with a particular word in the title, or written in a particular language. Or maybe you'd like a video rather than a book. The Advanced Search feature can help you narrow your search in any of these (and many other) ways. A link to the advanced search feature is available next to the library search box.

In advanced search, use the top drop-down menu to specify subject, title, or author. Use other drop-down menus to specify format (book, video, music recording, etc.), collection, or language, and also specify a range of publication dates. You can link several search terms together using the terms "and," "or," & "not."

3. Learn the fine art of "controlled vocabulary"

Keyword searching relies on "natural language" -- words that we choose on our own to express an idea. Natural language usually works fairly well, but not always. Sometimes a particular word can have several different meanings. If you enter the word Mercury into the search box, are you hoping to find information on an element, a planet, or a Roman deity? The computer won't know, and you'll probably get irrelevant results. In other cases, you'll get fewer results than you should. Let's try a search for modern art. If you use Advanced Search to look for subject = "modern art," you'll get very few results for items in the library (though quite a few online articles). What's going on? Does the library really have almost no books on the subject of modern art?

In both cases, you'll improve your results by searching for subjects based on "controlled vocabulary," or any group of predefined terms that have been selected to describe subjects. Controlled vocabularies are used to distinguish between various meanings for the same word or to define a single standardized term for a concept that could be expressed in different ways. Subjects for books are based on Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), though many of the online article databases use different sets of controlled vocabularies to classify their material.

In our examples above, the LCSH subject Mercury refers to the element, while the subjects Mercury (Planet) or Mercury (Roman Deity) are used for other meanings. The LCSH term for modern art is actually Art, Modern.

But how are you supposed to know this? There are too many LCSH subject headings for anyone to memorize more than a tiny percentage of them. It's a nuisance to go to the LCSH website and try figuring it out there. Luckily there is an easy way to unlock the secrets of controlled vocabulary subject headings. Follow these steps:

  1. Do a keyword search using the phrase that you think is best. "Civil War" is a good example. You'll get a lot of results with that phrase somewhere in the record. Click on the option for "library catalog" in the gray box on the left to eliminate online articles.
  2. Pick an item from the results list that has something to do with the American Civil War. Click on the title, which will open a detailed item record.
  3. Scroll down the screen until you see a section for "subject." You'll see at least one (and sometimes several) subjects for that item, all of which are examples of controlled vocabulary terms from the LCSH. 
  4. Click on any of these search terms to start a new search for that term.

A similar technique can be used with some online articles. Click on the title of an article from the results list to see something like this:

We see the same kind of subject terms here that appear in book records, though the terms aren't always the same. This record from EBSCOHost uses the subject heading "Modern art" rather than "Art, Modern." Click any subject link in the catalog record to see other items containing that subject.

4. Use the "Classic Catalog" to browse subjects and see cross-reference hints

Behind our discovery service is the "Classic Catalog." It accesses the exact same catalog information (not including online articles), but displays it in different ways. While most users will probably prefer the graphical interface of the discovery service, the "classic catalog" does have some powerful features not available in in the discovery service.

To access the classic catalog, to to

The search box on the main page of the classic catalog looks like this:

classic search

If we choose subject from the drop-down menu on the left and enter the term modern art in the text box, we get the following results:


Since no actual item results appear on this screen, we know that our term modern art probably isn't an official LCSH term. But unlike the discovery service, the Classic Catalog often is able to offer suggestions for different terms that might be more appropriate. These suggestions are known as cross-references. Click on the link for 2 Related Subjects to see the cross-references for modern art. The classic catalog will tell you that the accepted related terms are Art, Modern and Modernism (Art). Click on the link for Art, Modern to get a browsable list of subjects beginning with the phrase Art, Modern. The first 16 results show here:

art modern

A browsable list of subjects opens up a whole new world of detailed access points for finding just the right items in the library. By carefully checking such lists, you can greatly increase your chances of finding items that precisely match the topic that you need.

By learning and applying these advanced search techniques you'll soon be getting much more of what you really want from the library catalog, and much less of what you don't want.