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ENGL 115 Their Eyes Were Watching God: African American Literature and the Bible: Search Techniques

General Search Advice

  • Learn basic search techniques that can be applied to almost any database (including the library catalog, article databases, and freely available search engines, like Google).
  • Start general and move more specific as you develop your argument or inquiry.
  • Understand the inventory of what you are searching. For example, if you need a book, search in Orbis or Books+ in Quicksearch. Similarly, if you're a sociology major and need a scholarly article, consider a subject-specific database for sociology. For more information about what types of information is where, see the tabs "Find Books" and "Find Articles". 

Use this page to start building general search techniques, which can be applied for many different resources at Yale Library.

Specific Techniques

Keywords & Subjects

Keyword Search

icon of a key on a document

When you use a search engine like Google, you are most likely doing a keyword search. Searching by keyword will return results with your keyword(s) located anywhere in the record or document.

Keywords can be useful to surface material in your search, but keep reading for more precise ways!

Subject Search

icon of books leaning togetherA subject defines a book or an article as a whole. Subject headings link information -- just like how hashtags link conversations in social media (#yalelibrary). Subjects for library resources are created within controlled vocabularies, which makes searching by subject very precise. It also means that doing a subject search isn't as easy as natural-language searches in something like Google.

Here are 3 ways to identify subject headings:

  1. Start with a keyword search, and identify 2 or 3 resources that look loosely related to your topic (they don't have to be perfect, just close enough). Open the records and look at the "Subject" field -- voila! Write these subjects down, or click on them (they're hyperlinked!) to uncover other material within that same subject.
  2. Some resources will offer the ability to search for just subjects, for example:
  3. Individual databases have their own thesauri for controlled vocabulary. Browse or search these thesauri to find the "correct" version of words and phrases used as subjects, which you can then apply to your search.

Boolean Operators

icon of a venn diagramBoolean operators refers to the words AND, OR, NOTWhen combined with keywords and/or subjects, boolean operators will help focus your search in the following ways:

  • AND will narrow your search, requiring all search terms be present in results
  • OR will retrieve variations ("pets" or "dogs" or "pugs"), so at least one term (maybe more) is present in results
  • NOT will exclude items from your search, helping to narrow results to only relevant information

Phrases & Proximity

Phrase Search

icon of quotation marksBecause search logic varies from one database to the next, it can be important to specify when you need to search a phrase. Some databases will assume words together act as a phrase, while other databases will treat each search as a boolean "AND" by default. If you know you need "American history", and not just "American" and not just "history" -- search as a phrase.

  • Phrase searching is commonly seen with quotation marks
  • Keep an eye out for databases with options for "Search as: words" (i.e.: keywords with "AND"), or "Search as: a phrase"

Proximity Search

icon of two points on a planeSome databases will also allow you to specify proximity between search terms. This method can be useful if you want to retrieve a phrase, but that phrase might have variations. Depending on the database, the proximity option could range from a dropdown menu, to an operator such as:

  • Near Operator (N) 
  • Within Operator (W) 

Hillary Clinton is a good example: "Hillary Clinton" as a phrase search might be successful, but specifying Hillary N2 Clinton will retrieve variations within two words, i.e.: "Hillary Rodham Clinton".

Truncation & Wildcard

Truncation Search

icon of an asterisk A truncation search expands your search result options by retrieving iterations of a root word. To use truncation, enter the root of a term and replace the ending with an asterisk (*).


Wildcard Search

a pound sign, also known as a 'hashtag'

A wildcard search can be helpful to retrieve spelling variations of search terms. Commonly a hash (#) will mark the letter in question. For example: wom#n will retrieve "woman" or "women", and colo#r will retrieve "color" or "colour".

Keep in mind...

With any of these search methods, the symbols or syntax required can vary from one database to the next. If you're using a few databases a lot - you'll get to know their requirements pretty quickly! If you're using a new database, take a look around for any special requirements.

For instance: in Orbis, the truncation symbol is actually a question mark (?).

Image Citations

From the Noun Project:

  • "Keyword" icon by H. Alberto Gongora
  • "Books" icon by icon 54
  • "Venn Diagram" icon by Gautam Arora
  • "Quotation" icon by iconsphere
  • "Location" icon by Numero Uno
  • "Asterick" icon by mikicon
  • "Hashtag" icon by Three Six Five