Information Services

Help searching Library databases & online resources

Learning a few basic principles will help you find the information you want from the many online resources, ejournals and databases to which the Library provides access.

The Library subscribes to a large number of online resources including bibliographic databases and full-text ejournals. Like websites, they all behave slightly differently when you use them.

Basic principles

Applying the five principles described below will help you search for relevant information more effectively:

  1. Choose effective search terms (keywords)
  2. Use the advanced search option (if one is available)
  3. Use Boolean operators
  4. Use truncation
  5. Use the thesaurus

Search terms (keywords)

Be clear about your topic and think carefully about what information you are trying to find.

If you are unsure about which search terms to use, start by using general keywords. Your initial set of results will help you become familiar with the language used and give you ideas for new search terms to try.


  • Consider all the possible words or phrases which describe your topic. For example: 'teenagers', 'young people', 'adolescents', 'youth'.
  • Think about the results your search terms won’t find as well as the results they will find. For example: using 'computer' may mean you miss out on relevant results if ‘PC’ is the preferred term.
  • Consider alternative spellings. For example: search for 'color' as well as 'colour'.
  • Consider alternative terminology: search for 'sidewalk' as well as 'pavement'.
  • Think about variations in word endings. For example: 'nurse', 'nurses', 'nursing'.
  • Expand acronyms: search for 'television' as well as 'T'V'.
  • Be specific to achieve the most relevant references, but do not use long descriptive phrases which would only find references with that exact phrase.
  • Try searching on the author’s name for other related work and follow up on bibliographic references.

Advanced search

Most databases provide an Advanced Search option. Use it!

Advanced search allows you to focus your search and to construct a more sophisticated search strategy. By combining search terms and adding additional information, such as date and author, you are more likely to find relevant information.

Boolean operators

Using basic Boolean operators such as AND, OR and NOT, can help link concepts and search terms.

Usually, Boolean operators can be entered into a database’s search box or chosen from drop down menus beside search boxes.

Boolean operators will allow you to create very sophisticated search strategies.

Look for information on which Boolean operators a database supports in its help section. It is worth getting familiar with these, especially if there is a particular database you use regularly.



AND retrieves only the records containing ALL of the search terms used.

For example: Scotland AND Barnett

Use AND to link multiple search terms to make your search more specific and reduce the number of results returned.



OR retrieves records containing ANY of the search terms used.

For example: murder OR manslaughter

This is used for synonyms, variant terminology, alternative topics or alternative spellings.

Using OR increases the number of results returned.



NOT retrieves records containing one term and EXCLUDES records containing an unwanted term.

For example: tourism NOT Edinburgh

Will find results which include the term ‘tourism’ but exclude the term 'Edinburgh'.

This reduces the number of references and makes the search more specific. Use NOT with caution, by excluding one term you exclude results which mention both terms.

Using parentheses (nesting)

In complex search strategies involving the use of more than one Boolean operator, it is necessary to use parentheses. This is also called nesting.

For example: (teenager OR adolescent OR young person) and (report OR statistics) AND Scotland


Search terms may have variant endings, for example: nurse, nurses, nursing. If all search terms are relevant, use a truncation symbol to find results containing all variations of a word.

For example: searching for 'nurs*' will find nurse, nurses, nursed, nursing, nursery.

The truncation symbol used by the database will usually be found under help or search tips. Common truncation symbols are: $ * ? #

Use truncation with care. Truncating can retrieve unexpected results.

For example: searching for 'wom*' will find woman and women, but also womaniser and Womble!


Many databases use a thesaurus (a controlled vocabulary of terms or subject headings), to ensure that all items on a particular topic have standard search terms (or keywords) assigned to them.

General subjects can also be broken down into subheadings. You can focus your search by selecting one or more of these.