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Resources for ACP-US History Teachers

Search Strategies: Page Contents

This page offers tips and simple explanations you can use to help your students think about crafting good searches.

Search tips for primary sources

1. Choose a relevant database or digital collection to search (see the suggestions on this research guide). 

2. Explore the search options: see if you can limit by publication date, location and/or format.

3. Experiment with search words (keywords). Remember, when you're searching the full text of primary sources, you need to use the vocabulary that was used in the time period of the sources. Language usage changes over time.

  • Example: the term "gas station" was not used in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Instead, people said "filling station." If you search in primary sources for "gas station," you won't get useful results.

image snippet from Jasper newspaper showing the term filling stato

(from The Jasper Weekly Courier, September 23, 1921 via Chronicling America)

Here are some other examples:

historical usage  contemporary usage
automobile, auto car
moving picture, talkie, picture movie, film

Searching a Library Catalog for Primary Sources:

Try these Library of Congress subject terms, combined with additional subjects or keywords:



personal narratives





Use advanced search options to limit by date of publication.

More Resources

These guides may be helpful for your students:

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary Sources are documents and other materials created/produced during the historical time period you're researching. They directly express the point of view or experience of people in the past.

  • Examples
    • diaries
    • works of art and literature
    • speeches
    • audio and video recordings
    • photographs and posters
    • newspaper ads and stories
    • laws and legislative hearings
    • government documents

Secondary Sources are created/produced sometime after the period you're researching, closer to our own time. They introduce a layer of interpretation or analysis, rather than being direct evidence of past events. They are usually based on primary sources, as well as other secondary sources.

  • Examples:
    • books by historians
    • articles in history journals
    • blog posts by history students
    • your research paper, once you finish it!

Tips for choosing good search terms

A keyword expresses a central concept or idea about a topic. When you search Google, you are keyword searching. 

When searching library resources like databases, be more selective with keywords. Begin with a small number of terms, and avoid long phrases.

To Identify Keywords...

1. Identify the major concepts of your topic.

Example topic: the environmental consequences of fracking

2. Develop keywords related to the major concepts of your topic.


Concept 1: Fracking

Concept 2: Environmental consequences


Hydraulic fracturing

Natural gas drilling



Global warming

Note: Databases can be picky about search terms. Identify synonyms for your concepts, and consider the words likely used in the database. See the tips below for more on identifying keywords.

Effective Keyword Searching:

Being concise: Begin with only 2-3 terms, and avoid long phrases. The more terms you enter the fewer results you’ll get.

Keyword Search in OneSearch@IU:  
environmental consequences of fracking
: 0 results


fracking environment: 2,472 results

Synonyms: If your first term doesn’t work, try a synonym. 
(Example: environment INSTEAD OF environmental consequences)

Background research: To identify useful keywords, do some quick background research. Note terms that are often used to discuss the topic. 

Database search results: Do a quick database search and view the search results page to identify relevant terms.

  • Titles and article abstracts (summaries) may include helpful terms. 
  • Most databases list “subject” terms to describe their records. Subject terms can help you locate more records on that topic.  They also give an overview of how others have approached the topic.