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English 185: Developing Search Terms

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Coming up with Search Terms

If you've got your research question, you'll need keywords or search terms to search in the library's resources. Unlike google, library databases prefer simple terms, not the whole question typed out. So from our previous page on Brainstorming we had super general topics like:

  • Campus topics
  • History's mysteries
  • Community

Through the mind mapping exercise, we can get a narrower research question from each of these. For instance:

  • Campus topics = How are campuses supporting the mental health of their students?
    • Keywords - college, support, mental health
  • History's mysteries = What is the significance of megaliths like Stonehenge?
    • Keywords - significance, megalith
  • Community = How does quarantining because of a pandemic bring communities closer  together?
    • Keywords - quarantine, community, positive

You'll notice that common words like "how," "because," and "a" are not keywords. These words do not make great search terms because they appear in almost every book and every article. To generate helpful keywords you want to identify the essential terms of your research question.

When coming up with keywords it is important to remember that the word you use for something may not be the same word someone else uses. Some people say "mini golf" and some people say "putt putt." Some people say "movie" and some people say "film." In Psychology they might say "mental health" but in Sociology they might say "well being." You want to find as many good sources as possible, so you need to think about, not only the words you use, but the words others might use as well. 

Combining Search Terms

There are specific ways to combine search terms when looking for resources in library databases. You can combine terms using AND, OR, NOT. These three words are called Boolean Operators. 

  • If you were to do a search combining community AND quarantine, all of your results would contain both the words community and quarantine.
  • If you were to do a search combining community OR group, all of your results would contain either the words community or group. It is a way to expand your search to account for different words that might represent the same idea. 
  • If you were to do a search combining community NOT family, all of your results would contain the word community, but not the word family. This is a way to narrow your search, so you can exclude a particular type of community.

boolean operatorsImage from Albion College library.