Module 3

Building Search Strategies

This module covers how to build search strategies to use in databases to find information.

When you complete this module, you will be able to:

- use the different search fields in databases.
- use Boolean Logic to connect search words.
- use phrase searching, truncation, and wildcard in your search strategies.
- build search strategies.


Before you start to search, you need to brainstorm what words to use to find information for your topic and to answer your research question. This will save you time and frustration when you're searching because you will have a list of words to consider when some don't work.

It could be a list, an outline, a mind map, or any method that works for you to generate possible search words.

As you are brainstorming, consider narrow and broad words, synonyms, spelling variations, slang, and regional words. Also think about what words authors would use to create information for your topic. For example, what words would appear in a journal article or on a webpage?

This is a good time to think about how to divide your research into manageable portions. Some topics may require you to find information on each segment you want to discuss; one search may not find all the information you need.

A search field is how you search a database. Some databases such as search engines (e.g. Google, Bing) provide a single search field while others such as library databases and the catalog provide multiple ones that search specific fields of a record in the database.

Four most common search fields are:

Some other useful search fields are: ISBN (for books), ISSN (for periodicals), Source, Abstract, People, and Geographic Terms. However, there are many different search fields available depending on the database you use.

Research Tip

When you start searching, use keyword searches. Look at a few of the results that you retrieve that seem relevant to your research. Then, scan the subjects listed.

Which subjects are relevant to your research?

Add those words to your search using the subject search field to focus your search to more relevant information.


Boolean Logic are AND, OR, NOT that are used to link words together.

Focuses search results and is the default between words even when not typed. For example, a database searches for global warming as global AND warming.

Venn diagram showing boolean logic AND

Global Warming AND Air Pollution will retrieve only results with all four words: global, warming, air, pollution.

Broadens search results and is best used with synonyms, related words, and different spellings of words.

Venn diagram showing boolean logic OR

Global Warming OR Air Pollution will retrieve results will any and all those words.

Limits a search by removing results with those words. Use the minus sign (-) in search engines to remove words from results (e.g. will remove all commercial websites).

Venn diagram showing boolean logic NOT

Global Warming NOT Air Pollution will retrieve results with only Global Warming. No records with Air Pollution will be retrieved. 

Phrase Searching is how you can search for an exact sentence or phrase in specific word order rather than words in random order.

"Global Warming" AND "Air Pollution" will retrieve records with those exact phrases rather than records with any combination of those four words.

Truncation is how you can search for multiple versions of a word without typing in all the different variations. Start by typing the root of the word, then enter an asterisk (*) at the end. The database will find all the combinations of that word.

Example, educat* will retrieve records with educate, educates, educating, education, educator, educators . . .

Wildcard is similar to truncation by allowing you to search for multiple spellings without typing all the variations; however, it only replaces one letter in a word. Type the word but replace that letter that you want to be wild with a question mark (?).

Example, wom?n will retrieve records with woman and women.

Nesting is using parentheses ( ) to group concepts when you use two or more Boolean Logic. 

Example, gaming AND (adolescents OR teenagers)

So now you have all the materials to build your search strategy. The number of search strategies you will need depends on how you break up your research.

For example, if you only need to find the movie times at the local theater, you probably will only need one search strategy. However, more advance research will require you to build multiple search strategies in order to thoroughly understand the topic.

To build a search strategy:

Watch this video created by Western University Libraries to learn more.

Here's an example if we needed to find information on female characters in the Shakespearean plays "The Taming of the Shrew" and "As You Like It":

1st Concept

Word OR Word Search Field
"The Taming of the Shew" OR "As You Like It" Keyword


2nd Concept

Word OR Word Search Field
Female OR Wom?n Keyword


3rd Concept

Word OR Word Search Field
Shakespeare, William     Subject

In a database, it would look like this:

search strategy results

Click to enlarge image.

You have completed Module 3. You should now be able to:

green check markuse the different search fields in databases.

green check markuse Boolean Logic or Operators to connect search words. 

green check markuse phrase searching, truncation, and wildcard in your search strategies.

green check markbuild search strategies.

You are ready for Module 4 - Searching the Library Catalog.