A search strategy is an organized method to retrieve information about a specific topic. Use the techniques described below to become a better researcher.
In databases and search engines, it is possible to do a broad search for information by typing in a term which you feel describes your topic and using it as a keyword. Every occurrence of your keyword from all the searchable fields will be found. The searchable fields could include the full-text of an article or an entire web page.
You may retrieve a large number of hits. Look carefully at a couple of the relevant hits to get ideas for other terms which could help you refine your search.
Keyword searching can be time consuming and exhausting because it is such a broad method of searching. It can be particularly confusing when searching in a full-text database or when using a search engine on the Web. Remember: Finding too much information is just as problematic as finding too little information.
How can you refine a search?
The distinguishing characteristic of a database is that it contains records with fields that can be sorted, arranged, and searched (see Types of Databases for more information). When confronted with an overabundance of results in a first broad keyword search, you can narrow your search by limiting it to specific fields. See also: How to broaden or narrow your topic
Searching by Subject Keywords
In some databases (such as EBSCO) you can limit your search to the major content fields: subject, title, and abstract. This will return fewer hits because the term will appear less often when limited to fewer fields. These hits will probably be more relevant to the subject.
Searching by Keywords in Subject Headings
This method narrows your search even further because it limits the keyword search to only one field: the Subject Heading field. In the Otis OPAC (using the Advanced Search), this is called subject keyword. Using a keyword browse or scan allows you to browse terms in a list form. Browsing this list can help you find the correct form of the word (very helpful if you aren't a good speller!). It also shows the number of hits you can expect if you search using the word.
Searching Subject Headings
Searching the Subject Headings field is a very specific method of searching. Subject headings are determined by a human being (an indexer or cataloger) after carefully reading or looking at the item. Each item will have only a few subject terms which must be chosen from a list of allowable subject headings, a controlled vocabulary.
Browsing Subjects is a Good Search Strategy
Because searching subjects is more specific than searching keywords, browsing the subject headings (the allowable terms) from the database is a good way to discover new terms to try. For an example of how to use this search strategy, see Example of How to Clarify Your Topic.
In the case of book records in library OPACs, subject headings are usually assigned by catalogers at the Library of Congress at the time the book is published and actually printed within the book (on the back of the title page).
LC publishes a several-volume thesaurus of allowable subject headings called LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings). Librarians rely on it as a means of controlling the terms added to the subject field. Since subject headings are created by humans rather than software, searching subject headings is the most precise method of searching.
The LCSH is an excellent place to look if you need ideas or help in figuring out what terms to search. Call Number: Ref. Z 695.
How can you refine a search on the Web?
Since the Internet is not organized in the same way a research database is, you usually cannot do field searching on the Web nor can you rely on the consistency of a controlled vocabulary. But keep in mind that it is possible to use Boolean operators when searching the web; remember to check the instructions for the search engines you use.