Literature Reviews

How to Search Library Databases

Follow these tips to improve the quality of hits in the library's databases:

  1. Use concrete and neutral words.
  2. Never type more the one or two words in a search box. Go to the Advanced Search page to separate keywords into multiple boxes.
  3. If you are not finding what you need, try to change or add keywords.
  4. Use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) and truncation (*) to expand and narrow results. 
  5. Use filters/limiters on the left-hand or right-hand side of the screen to refine results.
  6. Choose a field from the drop-down menu next to the search box to narrow results. 
  7. Ask for help!

A “keyword” is simply a concrete word or phrase that describes the main concepts in a research question or topic. If you have used an Internet search engine, you are probably familiar with keyword searching.

A keyword search:

  • Finds the word wherever it appears in the database
  • Is the most flexible and broadest type of search that is best for initial exploration of a research topic or question
  • May yield too many results that are not relevant to the research topic or question
  • Is useful for when the keyword is form of jargon or a term that is new or otherwise distinctive, such as personal names or brands

NEVER type more than one or two words into a search box. Use Advanced Search for more search boxes to add keywords.

To expand search results, drop the ending of keywords and place an asterisk (*) next to the root of term to find all variations such as the plural and adjectival forms:

Generating Search Terms Tutorial

This video tutorial will show you how to find and generate effective keywords for internet or database searching:

Boolean operators allow you to connect search terms together to get more focused results. The most common are AND, OR and NOT:

Operator What does it do? Examples
  • Narrows search results.
  • Retrieves results that contain all the terms and excludes those that contain just one of the terms.

youth AND drugs

child AND development AND play

  • Expands search results.
  • Retrieves results that contain either or all search terms; OR is usually used to search for synonyms or related words.

native OR aboriginal

job OR career OR profession

  • Narrow search results by excluding one or more words.
  • Retrieves the records that contain the first term but eliminates any records that contain the term which is entered after NOT. It should be used with caution as it may eliminate relevant records.

depression NOT economic

crime AND London NOT Ontario

When you use library databases, you will often get too many results.

In most databases, the left-hand or right-hand column of the search results page has many filters/limiters to narrow and improve the accuracy and relevancy of results.

The categories of filters and limiters include:

  • Format of resource, such as print book, academic journal, or eBook
  • Subject headings, which describe the content of the item
  • Language of the publication
  • Geographic location such as country, province, state or city
  • Library database where the item is located, such as Academic Search Complete or Nursing Reference Center
Here are two examples of library database filters:

Example 1:

Library search filters

Example 2:

Library database search filters

A field is used to “file” a library resource in the database. Fields appear on the database record and vary according to the format of the library resource.

This is an example of a record for an academic journal article. There are fields for the article title, name of the journal (source), author(s), database, and so on. These fields are used to describe and organize the library resource:


To narrow search results by field, choose from the drop-down menu next to the search box:
Library advanced search fields
The library has many different databases and most have this option. This is an example of the field drop-down menu in another database:
Database advanced search select a field drop down menu

A field search:

  • Is best for known items, meaning you have some knowledge of specific characteristics such as author, title of article, and so on
  • Must have the exact spelling and grammatical structure. For example, most databases format the author field with by last name first followed by the initial of the first name, so a search for “Anne Smith” would not be successful but search for “Smith, A” would be successful
  • May narrow results too much, missing other relevant resources

In library databases, subject headings are a type of standardized “tag” used to index and organize resources on the same topic, regardless of the words used in the actual text.

Subject headings are useful because they group under one umbrella term all the synonyms, singular or plural forms, and spelling variants of a given term so you do not have to search for every variation to find all relevant resources.

Also referred to as subject terms or descriptors, subject headings vary depending on the database. A list of subject headings is typically provided within the thesaurus or index, which can be used to begin a subject search.

For example, the Business Source Complete database has a link to its Thesaurus that provides the option to search or browse by keyword:

After searching by keyword, such as accounting, a list of subject headings pertaining to that subject is retrieved:

Another method of subject searching is by opening the database record.

Often, the subject headings are hyperlinked. Clicking on one will retrieve all resources that have been indexed under that subject heading:

A subject search:

  • Is helpful for when you are seeking information on a general or broad topic
  • Can locate sources on a topic that is not explicitly expressed in any of the other fields in a catalogue or database record
  • Is useful for finding information about a specific person or place, such as an author (books about Margaret Atwood) or a region (Asia)
  • Can assist you in narrowing your research topic, as general subjects are broken down into subtopics; for example “Business – ethics”


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Strategies & Techniques to Improve Search Results

Pearl growing uses the characteristics of a highly relevant and authoritative article, referred to as the "pearl," to search for additional related sources.

To use this technique, follow these steps:

1) Find a relevant and authoritative article on your research topic

2) Locate and open the record for that article in the library database

3) Review the subject terms that are used to describe and index the article in the database:

3) Use the subject terms to search for further resources in the database by clicking on them if they are hyperlinked or including them as keywords in a new search statement

4) If necessary, repeat the process as new sources are found

Bibliographic mining involves simply reviewing the reference list at the end of an book, journal article, dissertation or similar work. The researcher then "mines" the reference list for further resources of interest and relevancy.

This is one method that can be used to trace the history and evolution of a topic or area of study. For this reason, it is an excellent technique to use for literature reviews.

Cited Reference Searching involves searching for sources that have cited a particular source in order to find similar and related materials as well as understand how an influential argument or research findings have been framed and discussed.

In the LLC's collection of EBSCOHost databases, such as Academic Search Complete, the option to search by cited reference is found at the top of the screen under Cited References.

There are options to change or select multiple databases and search citations by author, source, title, year, or all fields. For access to the full-text, select from the search results and click on Finding Citing Articles at the top.

This simple and intuitive approach involves breaking your research question or information need into distinct groups, or "blocks." Follow these steps:

  • Identify and divide main facets and concepts of the query into "blocks"
  • Using Boolean operators to account for synonyms or related terms, create a search statement for each block
  • Test and evaluate your search statements
  • Combine the search statements for each "block" into one query using "AND"

Example:  How can educational technology be used to improve learning in community colleges?

Get better results from Google by using these search tips and tricks:

  • Use a "phrase search" to find an exact term by using quotation marks

Example: "distance education"

  • Limit results to one type of website, such as governmental or educational

Example 1: community college (typing "" after the search term will limit results to government of Canada websites)

Example 2: educational technology (typing "" after the search term will limit results to educational institutions)

  • Search for words in the website title to ensure the information is relevant

Example: allintitle: information literacy (typing "allintitle:" before the search term will limit results to those that have all those terms in the web page title, such as "National Forum on Information Literacy," "Canadian Research Libraries Information Literacy Portal," and so on)

  • Use the minus sign (-) to remove unwanted words from search results

Example: postsecondary education -university -training search results will include sites with the term "postsecondary education" and exclude sites with the words "university" or "training")

  • Use the "advanced search" option to limit your results by language, Internet domain, date of publication, country, and where on the web page the words appear, such as address or text.

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Literature Review Handout (Summary of Resources & Strategies)