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English Research Guide

Basic Search Tips

a tower viewer with the word "search" at the topUnlike Google, library databases can't understand an entire sentence. So you'll need to break your topic down into the most important ideas - the KEYWORDS.

Example Topic: The role of feminism on gender roles depicted in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

The specifics of your topic will matter when selecting sources, but for searching you only need the most essential components.

Keywords: feminism, gender roles, The Handmaid's Tale

"The role of feminism on gender roles depicted in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale" with the keywords (feminism, gender roles, The Handmaid's Tale) highlighted.

Most keywords will have synonyms (words that mean the same thing or something very similar) that you can also try out in your searches. For each keyword in your topic, try to come up with at least one synonym. The more you read about your topic, the more synonyms you will come across. Keep a list!  Not all keywords will have synonyms, but many do.


Keyword: Feminism          Synonym: Feminist Movement


Keep an Eye Out

Sometimes scholars use terms that you might not be familiar with, or which might mean something very specific within the discipline. While searching, look for unfamiliar terms or words that show up a lot. Try searching for those and see if you find more relevant sources.

Screnshot of OneSearch results list, highlighting the left-hand filtersMost library databases have search tools and filters built in to help you refine your results. Try some of these:

  • Subject: Think of subjects as official hashtags. Use them to find sources about that subject.
  • Date Range: Limit your search to sources published between specific years.
  • Peer Reviewed: Limit your search to scholarly journal articles.
  • Full Text: Make sure all of the results are available to read in full.

Look on the left and right of your search results, or for an "advanced search" page to find these tools and more! (The example pictured to the right is from a OneSearch results list, where the search tools and filters are located on the left-hand side.)

a person standing in front of a wall of charts and graphsYou can evaluate any source using the 5 W's:

  • Who: ...wrote it? Do they have expertise over the subject? What kind?
  • What: the purpose of this resource?
  • Where: ...was this information published? ...does the information come from?
  • When: ...was this published or last updated?
  • Why: this resource useful? this resource better than other ones?

Note: for more in-depth info on evaluating your sources, please take a look at LAVC Library's Information Evaluation guide. 

Advanced Search Tips

Venn diagram: "feminism" AND "Margaret Atwood"Use the operator AND to find only sources that mention both keywords.

feminism AND Margaret Atwood

This search will bring back fewer results than searching either keyword on its own.

Venn diagram: "feminism" OR "gender roles"Use the OR operator to expand your search with additional keywords.

feminism OR gender roles

This will find sources that include either word, so you'll see more results than by searching for just one keyword.

Advanced search screen of Academic Search CompleteUse the “QUOTES” strategy to search for several words together in a phrase.

"The Handmaid's Tale"

This will bring back results that only use that exact phrase.

For more help with Advanced Searches, please refer to our Find Articles Guide.

[Note: the example pictured above is from the "advanced search" portion of one of our most popular databases, Academic Search Complete.]

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