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Off-Campus Library Services: Search Tips

Guide for students doing research off campus.

Keyword vs. Subject Searching

A keyword search uses natural language to search for a word anywhere in a record: the title, abstract, subject headings, author, text, etc. (the equivalent of searching "everything" in the library catalog).  For example, if you search for fast foods and teenage obesity, you'll retrieve results in which all of these four words appear anywhere in the record at least once. However, you won't find articles that use synonyms of these words, such as overweight or youth.

A subject heading search uses the database's own pre-determined vocabulary. This requires you to know which terms have been assigned for certain subjects. For example, if you want to find articles on fast foods and teenage obesity in Academic Search Premier, you'll need to search for convenience foods and obesity in adolescence. This will retrieve all articles that have been assigned these subject headings, even those that use different wording in the text itself.

Keyword                vs.                 Subject
Natural language words describing your topic. A good way to start your search. Pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" assigned to describe the content of each item in a database or catalog.
More flexible for searching. You can combine terms in any number of ways. Less flexible. You must know the exact controlled vocabulary word or phrase.
Database looks for keywords anywhere in the record (title, author name, subject headings, etc.). Database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear.
Often yields too many or too few results. If a subject heading search yields too many results, you can often select subheadings to narrow the search.
Often yields many irrelevant results. Results are usually very relevant to the topic.

Searching the Library Catalog

Search the Library Catalog to find books, eBooks, and periodicals. You can search by keyword ("everything"), author, title, or subject heading. The results list will give you basic information about each item, including availability. To find out more, click on Details. Three tabs provide different kinds of information. A Look Inside might show a summary, the table of contents, and/or reviews of the book. The Catalog Record provides all the details you will need for a citation plus the book's subject headings, which are clickable links and may give you ideas for other searches to try.

Books that are available to be checked out are located in the stacks (the bookshelves in the Quiet Study Area). Ask a librarian to point you in the right direction.

In addition to the print books in the stacks, the Library has over 12,000 eBooks. They are included in the library catalog and will appear in the results list along with books in print. 

Boolean Search Operators

There are three little words that are used as Boolean operators: AND, OR, and NOT

Think of each keyword as having a set of results that is connected to it. These sets can be combined in different ways to produce different sets of results. You can also exclude certain sets from your results.

The table below explains how Boolean operators work.

Boolean Operator Examples Retrieves


Boolean AND

AND combines different terms when both must be present. Use AND to narrow a search.


Boolean OR

OR combines terms when at least one must be present. Use OR to broaden a search.


Boolean NOT

NOT eliminates irrelevant terms from a search. Use NOT when you want to exclude all records that contain a certain term.

Other Search Operators

Phrase Searches

Use a phrase search to search for certain words as a group. You can do a phrase search by enclosing a phrase in quotation marks to ensure that the database searches for the entire phrase, in the specific order you provided.

Examples of phrase searches are: "economic stimulus package," "global warming," "healthcare reform," etc.

Truncation Marks

A truncation mark is a symbol that is added to the end or beginning of the root of a word to instruct the database to search for all forms of that word. The asterisk (*) is used in many databases for truncation.

Example: adolescen* retrieves adolescent, adolescents, or adolescence.

Example: alcohol* retrieves alcoholic, alcoholics, alcoholism, and so on.