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Ottawa University Library Orientation: Search Techniques & Tips

Guide created to orientate new students to the Gangwish Library

Anatomy of a Search Interface

Developing a working familiarity with the fundamental aspects of database search interfaces makes research more effective and efficient. Many interfaces offer users similar sets of search features and options. This model drawn from EBSCOhost highlights some of those areas. For more details, see our explanations below.

Boolean Operators

Once users identify appropriate search terms, they can construct a search phrase by connecting those terms to Boolean operators. Typically, Boolean operators consist of the terms AND, OR and NOT.

  • AND works like a + sign by allowing users to include two or more terms in a search. AND narrows a search and may increase the relevancy of results.
  • OR works like a / sign by allowing users to employ synonyms in the search. OR broadens a search and may decrease the relevancy of results.
  • NOT works like a - sign by allowing users to remove a term from the search. NOT narrows a search and may increase the relevancy of results.
Diagram for Boolean Operators
 Used with permission from RMIT University Library

While wildcard symbols (* or ?) are not Boolean operators, they can be employed in conjunction with Boolean operators to expand a search. Wildcards can be used as a means to truncate a search term or find an alternative spelling.

Example 1. Inserting an asterisk (*) in place of the prefix of suffix of a word provides a user with variations of the word. Applying a wildcard to the end of the term writ* would yield a user the following terms: write, writer, writers, writes, writing, written.

Example 2. The same principle applies when a user inserts a wildcard within a word. By placing * in the term wom*n, a user would see the following results: woman and women.


Databases mine the fields in item records in order to produce search results for users. This is what an item record looks like:

In most databases, users can specify which fields they wish to search for particular terms. In the record above, the Authors field contains the term (or name) Giammarco, Erica and the Subject Terms field contains the term POVERTY. EBSCOhost offers the following fields:

Many database vendors make a keyword search the default search field. Keyword searches yield large lists of results, as the database essentially searches many areas of the records and articles for the selected terms.

While this approach may provide users with a wide array of information, it generally leads to information overload. This approach also lacks the precision of a controlled vocabulary and/or thoughtfully constructed field search. As such, it can present users with many irrelevant or marginally relevant sources. Users must then spend quite a bit time sifting through masses of information or settle for the few useful sources they can find up front.

We recommend users employ more efficient and effective search techniques by using controlled vocabulary (Subject terms like POETS, American and POVERTY) and selecting specific search fields.

For users uncertain of the exact terms which qualify as subject terms or headings, they can locate these terms in the database's index, thesaurus, or subject terms list. These lists are usually located on the menu bar at the top of the search interface.


Limiters allow users to refine search criteria and narrow search results. By selecting specific search criteria, such as a date range, format, or material type, users can increase the relevance of their results. Users should be judicious about applying limiters, though, as using too many of them can filter out desirable sources.

Consider the following limiters:

  • Peer reviewed (scholarly)--Focuses on finding articles which have been vetted by qualified experts. These articles have undergone a rigorous quality control process before being published. Professors place a high value on the credibility of these sources.
  • Date range--Establishes a target time period for publication. It can be useful when searching for the most current sources or sources created during a certain point in history (e.g. World War II--1939-1945).
  • Full-text--Removes records for articles with only partial availability (citations and/or abstracts) and retrieves all fully available articles. Users must decide if immediate access to this select group of sources is more important than exposure to a more representative range of information on their topics.