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History Subject Resource Guide

What type of search do you want to do????

There are a variety of ways to search for information.  How you search is dependent upon what you know about your topic.  The box below provides some basic definitions you should become familiar with and then describes the various ways you can search Discovery, the Library catalog or specific databases.  Each tool is different but the basic principles of searching will apply to all of these tools.

When you know the title or author of the item/s you are searching, you will be doing a known item search.  If you have a topic and you want information on it, you will start by doing a keyword search.  A keyword search will help you identify some subject headings that may allow you to focus your topic more clearly.  You can then perform a subject heading search.  When you want to search across several fields at one time you will want to use the guided or advanced search option.  All databases offer a variety of limiters; limiters allow you greater control over your searching.  For example. you may be able to limit by publication date, type of material, or language. 

Check out the box below for search tips!

Search Tips

A keyword is a natural language word that describes a main concept in your topic.  Most likely, you will want to search several concepts (keywords) in one search.  Keywords can be connected by using search operators AND, OR and NOT.  See the keyword tab for more.

Subject headings (sometimes called descriptors) are pre-defined or "controlled vocabulary" words assigned to describe the content of an item in a catalog or  database.  Clicking on a subject heading in an item record will allow you to locate items with similar or related content.

Each item in a library database (book, article) is represented by a record consisting of fields (title, author, abstract, etc.). The record contains information describing that item .  You are searching the record which may or may not include the full text.  You can also search for your terms in specific fields (ex. you can search by title, author or subject).

Limiters are search parameters specific to each database but usually include language, peer-reviewed, type of material, etc. For example, you can limit your search to just English language print books published after 2012 or you can limit your search to peer-reviewed articles.

This is the simplest way to search.  This is when you already know the title, author, or subject heading of the item you need.  In DISCOVERY, you can input a title (use quotes for best results) or keywords.  You can then use the filters on the left side of the screen to limit your search by author or subject.   In our other databases, use the drop-down boxes or filters to do this type of search.  This is an example from a database:


A keyword search is a good place to start whether you are in an online library catalog or a research database.  When you use a keyword search you are searching for that term to appear anywhere in the record.

A keyword search is very flexible in that keywords can be combined in any number of ways.  Here are some tips for doing effective keyword searches:

  • Use QUOTATIONS for phrases (ex. "cold war")
  • Use * to search for variant forms of a word (ex. interven* will retrieve intervene, intervening and intervention)
  • Use AND to ensure both keywords appear in all records retrieved (ex. "cold war" and interven*)
  • Use OR to ensure either term appears in all records retrieved; useful when searching for synonyms or related terms (ex. "third world" or "developing countries")
  • Use NOT to exclude a term (ex. communism not russia*)

Here is an example of a keyword search (hint:  surround terms connected by OR with parenthesis so they are searched as a concept).

Subject heading searches can be very effective but you need to know the exact subject heading.  If you don't, you can start by doing a keyword search and then examine the most relevant records you retrieve.  You can then search by the most appropriate subject headings you see in the records. 

This is an example of some subject headings from a record in a research database. The controlled vocabulary differs from database to database.

To search by subject heading, you can simply click on the link in the subject heading field; or, you can input the subject heading in a search box and use the drop-down menus to search by subject (in some databases, you will see the term "descriptor" which is the same as subject)--you can combine the subject heading with keywords to retrieve more precise results.  Please note that if you are using the DISCOVERY or ARTICLE tab to search you must use the ADVANCED SEARCH feature to search by subject heading.

The online catalog and the research databases offer advanced search options (sometimes called "guided" searching).  Use this option when you want to search across multiple fields in one search.  For example, you may want to search for a book by subject and add on another keyword (see the example below) or words in the title combined with an author.  Use the drop-down menus to select the fields you want to search.  This is an example from DISCOVERY.



You can limit your searches in a variety of ways.  The example below shows the limiters available in the DISCOVERY Books/eBooks tab.  Research database limiters will differ according to the database.


DISCOVERY enables you to search across most of our online databases including our book catalog in one search.  You can access DISCOVERY  from the Library Homepage. 

Please note that you can also limit your search to books/ebook, or articles or journal titles by using the tabs above.

Some quick search tips:

  • Use QUOTATION MARKS if you are searching for a particular phrase or book title
  • Use CAPs for boolean connectors (e.g. AND, OR, NOT)
  • For books only, check the RETAIN FILTERS  box to perform subsequent book searches.
  • Use ADVANCED SEARCH for title, author or subject heading searches (works better than the basic search screen!)
  • If you are getting a lot of irrelevant results, try taking off the EXPAND SEARCH WITH RELATED TERMS filter

AND here is a more detailed tip sheet for using DISCOVERY.


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