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Beginner Tips


Using AND

  • narrows results
  • ALL terms must be in each search result

Note: in most, but not all, databases, the AND is implied. For example, Google automatically puts an AND in between search terms.

Example:  renewable energy AND China

Venn Diagram depicting the search Renewal Energy AND China

Using OR

  • broadens results
  • searches for ANY of the terms in search results
  • connects similar concepts (synonyms)

Example:  renewable energy OR solar OR wind

Venn Diagram depicting the example search Renewable Energy OR Wind Or Solar

Using NOT

  • narrows results
  • exclude words from search

This operator is great when you notice your search term is used in different disciplines. You might use this example when researching peacekeeping in the context of interpersonal conflict but your search results in documents about international conflict.

Example:  peacekeeping NOT United Nations

Venn Diagram depicting the search Peacekeeping NOT United Nations


Adapted from SAIS Library, Johns Hopkins Univ. "Database Search Tips" Guide (no longer extant).

If your initial searches bring back no or few results, don't give up! Don't despair! Reassess your search strategy.

Possible Reasons

Choice of Search terms

Choosing the right search terms is key.

  • Experiment with related terms.
  • In databases Subject Terms can help you identify keywords.
  • Use OR to search for multiple related terms simultaneously. (e.g., policy OR law)
Too Many Search Terms

Database can be picky about search terms. Be selective.

  • Begin with one of two search terms that best represent your topic. Then add other terms as needed.
  • Avoid long phrases and empty words like “the” and “how.”
Too Many Limiters
  • If you limited the search (e.g., by date or search field) remove limiters and reassess.
Narrow Topic

Highly specific topics may be too narrow for finding results. Try a broader related topic first.

  • Narrow search: Bloomington Indiana AND environmental policy
  • Broader search: United States AND state government AND environmental policy
Database Choice

Different databases focus on different topics, so it could be that your search terms are well calibrated, but you're looking in the wrong place. View Resources by Subject or Ask a Librarian.

Add additional keywords

  • TIP: In databases Subject Terms can help you identify more narrow topics and keywords.

Choose more narrow search terms


  • Broader term: law
  • Narrower term: "environmental law" [hint: phrase searching with quotations!]

Use limiters

Search fields like
  • title
  • abstract
  • author
Or use limiters on the side to refine by
  • publication date
  • format type
  • subject
Search for a short phrase with quotation marks


  • "environmental law"
  • "environmental justice"

Records in library databases are made of "fields." Fields can help narrow your search.

Example of common fields in databases:
  • author
  • title
  • journal title
  • abstract
  • publisher
  • date/year of publication
  • subject/descriptor
  • all text (searches the full text, if available)
Improving Search Results with Fields
  • Most databases automatically search by keyword (looking for the term anywhere in the record).
  • Limit the field for a search term to narrow the results.
  • Fields are usually in drop down boxes.
  • If the database has a single search box with no drop-down menu, look for an "Advanced Search" option.

More Tips

Use quotation marks or parentheses around search words to search for a phrase. Otherwise most databases will find records that include both terms, but not necessary the terms as a phrase.


"middle east"
"united nations peacekeeping forces"
"civil society"

Adapted from SAIS Library, Johns Hopkins Univ. "Database Search Tips" Guide

Truncation broadens your search to include variant word endings and spellings. Enter the root of a word and then the truncation symbol.


elect* = election, electoral, elections
econ* = economy, economic, economics, econometric, economique
politi* = politics, political, politician, politique, politische

The most commonly used truncation symbol is an asterisk (*)
A exception is LexisNexis Academic, which uses an exclamation mark (!).


Adapted from SAIS Library, Johns Hopkins Univ. "Database Search Tips" Guide

Nesting is the use of parenthesis to put search words into sets. Use nesting with AND, OR, or NOT, 

success AND (education OR employment) 

(records will contain the word success, AND either the word education OR the word employment)

Nesting is often used when search terms have similar meanings:

education AND (employment OR jobs)

Wildcards are similar to truncation, but substitute a symbol for just one character. The most commonly used single wildcard symbol is a question mark.


wom?n = woman, women

democrati?ation = democratisation, democratization

defen?e = defence, defense

19?? = any  number between 1900 and 1999

Some exceptions: LexisNexis Academic uses an asterisk (*).  Other databases use the pound (#) symbol. 

If in doubt, check the help screens of the database you're using.