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Research Tutorial: Strategic Searching

Strategic Searching with Boolean Operators

Video Transcript

You’ve been strengthening your research muscle and making progress on your research paper. It’s starting to get easier because you’ve been doing your research workout. Thumbs Up!

Now you'd like to gather information on a topic. You've created a research question. You've identified the likely information types you need and which search tools to use. Now it’s time to begin your journey with search.

You wonder, why it is important to search strategically? Can’t I just start putting words in the search box like I do with Google? You could but then you’ll get so much information that you won’t be able to determine if it meets your need. Information overload!

That’s why strategic search using several keywords tied together with Boolean operators is important.

Let’s explain this a bit, alright?

Adapted from and thanks to the New Literacies Alliance.

When you enter words into a search tool, such as flu shots mandatory doctors nurses, you are telling the search tool to search for items that contain ALL of those keywords.

The search tools use an implied AND to combine all terms: flu AND shots AND mandatory AND doctors AND nurses. That means it will return everything with all of your keywords, even if an article or source has nothing to do with doctors and nurses getting flu shots.

But if you want specific information related to doctors and nurses getting flu shots you’ll need to narrow your search using Boolean Operators. So let’s get started.

Narrow Your Search

AND is an example of a Boolean Operator. Boolean Operators are words you can use to connect your keywords systematically. As you add more keywords, the number of documents that contain all of the keywords are going to diminish.
Let's look at a real-life situation.

(Thanks to Franklin D. Schurz Library at Indiana University South Bend for the video.)

Student: Hello.
Librarian: Hi.
Student:  Can you help me please? I’ve been trying to find research on my topic and I can’t find anything. I have to turn in my sources in an hour.
Librarian: Sure, I’d be happy to help. What is your topic?
Student: “Advertising in elections” I’ve tried every possible search term, but I keep getting no results.
Librarian: Hmmm. How about you go ahead and log into EBSCOHost and show me what words you have been using.
Student: I tried “Negative Advertising in Elections”, “Negative Ad Elections” and even “Advertising Elections”. None of them got me anywhere. See?
Librarian: Okay. The thing is for our library databases, phrase searching doesn’t work very well. So what you’ll need to do is use Boolean operators. It’s okay, it’s not that bad. What Boolean Operators are, you take three different words, AND, OR, or NOT and  you use it to separate term in your phrase to get the results that you want. The most common one is AND. Where you’ll be looking for this AND that for your subject. 


Say for instance you are wanting to do a search on the cherry industry in Washington state. What you could do is a search for CHERRY AND WASHINGTON. But in addition to everything in the cherry industry, you’ll also get George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.

So what you can do then, is use another Boolean Operator, NOT, so you can go: CHERRY AND WASHINGTON NOT GEORGE. Then everything dealing with George Washington falls away. There’s even another Boolean Operator, OR, which you can use. So say, for instance, you weren’t just looking at the cherry industry in Washington state, you were looking at the apple industry as well. Then you could do WASHINGTON AND CHERRY OR APPLE. OR is pretty much used when you have two like words, or when you have very similar topics.


Student: That’s good and all but getting back to my topic, ADVERTISING AND ELECTIONS.
Librarian: Sure. Let’s go back to the database. I have a couple of keywords in mind. To start with, we’ll do ADVERTISING AND ELECTIONS. And you notice, I put that Boolean Operator AND in there so we’ll get articles that contain both concepts.
Student: Wow, that’s great. But I don’t have time to go through 1200 results.
Librarian: How about we narrow the results by adding another term? What would you suggest?
Student: How about concentrating on NEGATIVE ADVERTISING ELECTIONS, by adding the terms, AND NEGATIVE?Librarian: This is great! We have 129 results right now and we can probably narrow it down more. But how about if go ahead and start with these.
Student: Wow, this is nice!  

But if you really want to get specific, you’ll need to add some punctuation.

There are several punctuation tricks you can employ in your search strategy. Putting quotation marks around words tells the search tool to search for those words as a phrase. For instance, when you enter "flu shot", instead of searching for everything flu and everything shot, you are searching for the phrase flu shot. Check out how phrase searching using quotation marks narrows your results.


Library Search Tool

"Flu Shot" with quotation marks



Flu Shot without quotation marks

12,700,000 results


"Influenza Vaccination" with quotation marks



(Boolean Operators video created by the Franklin D. Schurz Library at Indiana University South Bend.)