February 17th, 2009

Mind-reading and the Library Search

Most searchers have experienced the following at least once:

  • You go into the library
  • You pick a database
  • You search for your topic

But nothing comes up.

Why does that happen? Most of the time it’s because the keywords you have chosen don’t match exactly with the keywords the authors have used in their articles.

To search the library databases well, you have to become a bit of a mind-reader. Think about the words and phrases an author probably used, and look for those. Here are some tips to help you do that:

Use the most current jargon in your field. Being familiar with the field and looking at the terms used in your course readings can help you pick the right keywords.

  • Terminology can change over time, and scholars will typically be using the most currently accepted terms. Are today’s authors typically using Manic Depression or Bipolar Disorder?
  • Sometimes there will be overlap between terms, with more than one accepted term in use. For example, either Aspergers or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  • The current jargon of your field may not match common, everyday speech. Think incarceration instead of jail.

Avoid phrases. Every extra word will limit your results.

  • Only use multiword phrases if they are a specific, acknowledged term: United States is okay, “increasing enrollment” is not.
  • Break up phrases into the different concepts that make them up. Elementary school teachers is actually two concepts: elementary (level of school) and teacher (profession).
  • Remember: most phrases can be written many different ways. When you use a phrase, you are limiting your search to only one way to say the same thing. (I can skin the cat many ways. There are many ways to skin a cat. He found one way out of many to skin a cat.)

Search alternative terms. Sometimes there are multiple keywords that mean very similar things. Use or to link alternative terms in your search box.

  • Look at the books and articles you already have to identify other useful keywords.
  • Brainstorm broader or narrower keywords. When you want to find effects of the economic recession, you’ll have an easier time if you list out those specific effects as keywords: job loss or unemployment or consumer confidence or foreclosure . . .

To succeed at any of these techniques, you have to try to get in the mind of scholarly authors. What might they be saying? What kind of articles are they writing? What terms will they be using?

You may not really be a mind-reader, but trying to imagine what you’re searching for can help you find it.

– Erin


Comment from Erika
Time February 24, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Another tip if nothing comes up — check your spelling! The databases are very precise.

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