Database Search Tips

Use Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT

“AND” is the most often used, and is used to search two or more unrelated concepts. “poverty and crime” tells a database to find results that have both of those terms.

OR increases your results. “California or San Francisco” will retrieve results with either one or both terms in it, so you could return articles on California or articles on San Francisco. OR is helpful is use when you’re searching synonyms.

NOT is used to exclude a word or words from your results. “Venus not planet” would return results with the term “Venus” in it, but exclude those with “Planet.” This is helpful if a word has more than one meaning.


Most databases offer this search feature, although the symbol used for truncation varies. The most common symbol is *, although ! and $ are also used. A truncation symbol placed at the end or middle of a term will retrieve variations of that word. For example, “child*” will return hits on child, child’s, childhood, children, etc. The search “wom*n” might retrieve woman or women.

Limit your results 

Many databases allow you to limit your search results to certain elements. For examples, you can limit to articles published during a certain time period, in a specific language, to full-text articles only, etc.

Keyword vs. Subject (controlled vocabulary) Searching

Keyword searching allows you to enter any word or string of words. The database will search for all occurrences of the word(s) in citations, abstracts, and depending on the availability, full-text.

Keyword searching can be a good way to start a search, but be warned that you may get some results that aren’t on your topic. For example, if you were searching for information on American Indians of the Great Plains and you entered “American Indians”, you would retrieve information on Native Americans in North, South, and Central America.

One way to get around this problem is to use some type of controlled vocabulary (subject headings or descriptors) that the database uses, rather than keywords. The Library of Congress Subject Headings is the controlled vocabulary used in Ignacio, the library’s online catalog, but other databases may use their own set of controlled vocabulary. Browsing Ignacio’s subject heading index would tell you that “Indians of North America” is the term used for native peoples in North America.


Many databases have a thesaurus you can search for controlled vocabulary. For example, if you search in the thesaurus for the term “flu” in the nursing database, CINHAL, you would be instructed to use the term “influenza.”

“See” and “See also” references

Many databases include “see” references, which let you know you’re not using the proper search term used in the database and point you to the correct term. Sometimes you’ll be given “see also” references which let you know the term you’re using is fine, but suggest other useful related terms.

Proximity Searching

Some databases allow proximity searching. Proximity searching allows you to designate the number of terms that can be between your search terms, thus perhaps returning more relevant results. While “poverty and crime” would find documents that have both these terms anywhere in the record, using proximity operators requires that the terms be within a certain distance of each other. For example, “poverty w/3 crime” would require the database to return items with poverty within three words of crime. The exact symbol used for proximity searching depends on the database.

Adapted with permission from Madison Area Technical College Library.