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The Search Strategy  

Last Updated: Jul 17, 2013 URL: http://libguides.uah.edu/searchstrategy Print Guide RSS Updates

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The Search Strategy

Creating a search strategy involves "mapping out" the key components of a library research topic. Here is the basic process in nine steps.

      
     

    Step One: Identify a Topic

    Selecting a topic is the most important component of a successful search. Suggestions for finding a topic:

    •Discuss your topic ideas with your class instructor and/or a reference librarian.

    •Take a look at the Taking Sides series (do a title search on the words "taking sides" in the book catalog). These books offer an overview of many controversial topics and presents pro/con approaches to each topic. Great for getting ideas and for overview and background material. Also, look at  current newspapers and news magazines for other current topic ideas.  A couple of good databases to use are CQ Researcher and Opposing Viewpoints.

    •Look over the index and the article titles in a specialized encyclopedia that covers the subject area or discipline of your topic (for example, psychology, United States social history, women's studies, linguistics, environmental studies, etc.).

    •State your topic idea as a question, a phrase, or the title of an article or book on the subject.

    Sample topic: "Can playing the violin cause repetitive stress injury to wrists and arms?"

    •Now analyze the topic. Scrutinize the topic and identify keywords or phrases. If necessary, consult specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias, controlled vocabulary lists, and thesauri for more terms. Divide the keywords or phrases into concepts.

    Sample:
    Concept 1: violin
    Concept 2: repetitive stress injury
    Concept 3: wrist
    Concept 4: arms

     

    Step Two: Set up a Search Strategy Using Boolean Operators

    A Boolean operator refers to the logical use of algebraic terms involving two or more values. Boolean operators are used in computer database searching to connect research concepts. Boolean operators generally use only three words: and, or, and not. Here is how they work.

    "AND" narrows the search topic because both concepts must be in each record.

    If we specify violin and repetitive stress injury and wrists, the database will give us a list of sources in which all three concepts are mentioned, as seen in the diagram.



    "OR" broadens the search topic because all records containing one or both of the terms are included. If you need to broaden your topic, add synonyms or other phrases to the search strategy.

    Concept 1-violins or Concept 2-stringed instruments

    "NOT" eliminates unrelated records containing the concept.

    Concept 1 not Concept 2-repetitive stress injury not carpal tunnel syndrome

    Once you have set up a search strategy, you're ready to take the next step, finding background information on your topic.

     

    Step Three: Find Background Information

    Use dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, and other general works to provide background information on your topic. These sources will help you understand the broader context of your research and tell you in general terms what is known about your topic.

    Encyclopedias and Dictionaries: You can find encyclopedias and dictionaries for specific topics by using the Library Catalog, by consulting a Reference Bibliography (an annotated bibliography of selected sources on a specific subject), or by asking a librarian to suggest appropriate titles. For more general background you may wish to consult Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

    Bibliographies: Read the background information and note any useful sources (books, journals, magazines) listed in the bibliography at the end of the encyclopedia article or dictionary entry. Sources cited in the bibliography are good starting points for further research. Look up these sources in the Library Catalog and periodical indexes. Check the subject headings listed in the subject field of the online record for these books and articles. Then do subject searches using those subject headings to locate additional titles.

    Remember that many of the books and articles you find in the Library Catalog and periodical indexes will themselves have bibliographies. Check these for additional relevant resources for your research. By using this technique of routinely following up on sources cited in bibliographies, you could generate a surprisingly large number of books and articles on your topic in a relatively short time.

     

    Step Four: Find Books

    The resource to use to find books in the Library is the catalog. Just make sure to get the call number and location of the book so that you can find what you are looking for.

    We also offer access to several e-books collections.  For information on them, click here.

    Other Ways of Finding Books:

    The Salmon Library will not have all the books you are looking for. However, if it is helpful, you can identify books available at a large number of other libraries by searching WorldCat, an Online Union Catalog containing over 61 million records. UAH faculty, staff, and students may request books not owned by the Salmon Library via our Interlibrary Loan department.

     

    Step Five: Find Periodicals

    Periodicals are continuous publications such as journals, newspapers, or magazines. They are issued regularly (daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly). Why are periodicals so important in research? Read on!

    •They provide the most current information on a subject
    •They help to identify very "new" or "hot" topics of interest that may not be found in books
    •The findings may be limited to a specific concept
    •Older issues may help to provide historical information on the topic.

    Our online databases can help quickly identify articles on your topic. Choosing the right database is important because publishers construct their indexes (databases) for various subjects. Librarians can help you select the database that best answers your research question. Visit our Online Databases page to locate databases both alphabetically and by subject. The vast majority of our periodicals are now available online.

    Is it a Scholarly Journal or Not?
    Students frequently want to know whether the periodical in which they have located an article is scholarly or popular (general). There are no hard-and-fast rules for making a decision because many periodicals have both scholarly and popular elements. Ultimately you have to become familiar with the publications in a particular subject area and learn to make critical evaluations of each article. However, take a look at the Salmon Library guide "Is It a Scholarly Journal or Not?" for more tips.

    One way to ensure the articles you find are scholarly/peer reviewed articles is to check the box next to "Scholarly" or "Peer Reviewed" when doing the initial search.  This option is usually listed under the "Limit Your Results" area of the search screen.  That way the database will only retrieve articles with your set limits (dates, scholarly, full text, etc.).

     

    Step Six: Find Newspaper Articles

    Newspaper articles can give you very recent information on a topic. Visit Newspaper Source, Proquest Newsstand, or Proquest News and Newpapers for three of our databases that have newspaper archives. Many local and national papers also have a limited (usually limited to the last few years) online archive. 

    We have some current newspapers in the coffee shop area of the 1st floor (C1).  Older editions are available either online or on microfilm in N1. Take the microfilm to the Reference Desk for assistance.

     

    Step Seven: Consult Other Sources

    To complete your information search, examine some other sources on your topic. The reference department has many other indexes and sources that you can use to find information. If you can’t find what you are looking for or if you are not sure where to go next, ask a librarian. Depending on your instructor, general internet resources found via a search engine like Google or Yahoo, may or may not be acceptable sources.

     

    Step Eight: Evaluate what you Find

    Evaluating the sources you find is a crucial step in the process of library research. The questions you ask about books, articles, or other sources are similar whether you're looking at a citation to the item or have the item in hand. The Library guide "Evaluating Sources" lists some of the critical questions you should ask when you consider the appropriateness of a source for your research. The Library guide "Is It a Scholarly Journal or Not?" shows how to evaluate periodicals by looking at their format, intended audience, & appearance.

     

    Step Nine: Write your Paper & Format your Bibliography

    Format the citations in your bibliography using examples from the Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), or other designated style. For help in citing electronic or Internet resources, see the Library guide Citing Electronic Resources. Now you have everything you need to write your paper! If you need help with writing skills, please contact the Tutoring & Writing Center, located in the Student Success Center at 123 Madison Hall. You can contact them at 256-824-3472 or tutoring@uah.edu

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