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Research Basics Tutorial: How to Search

Module 1- Explore

Search for "Text messaging" and driving

Identify the best 'subject terms' for your topic

This might be a good article, but even if it is not, note the subject terms associated with this topic:

  • Text messaging & driving
  • Distracted driving
  • Accident prevention
  • Situational awareness
  • Cell phones

And those are from just one of the hundreds of articles your initial searches might produce.

Construct a new search

Using the most relevant of these and any others you discover, construct a new search! You can start with a 'broad' search and narrow as you go:

Search box with search terms text messaging and driving

By searching with the terms that library databases prefer (subject terms), you should yield better, more relevant articles.

Choice of terms matters: What are the best terms for searching?

As you work to discover good source material, you will encounter specialized language that describes your topic:

"keywords" AND "subject terms"

Image: search boxes indicating where keywords or subject terms should go

keywords: When you search using keywords, you have brainstormed a term associated with your topic, and you are hoping that there is a book, video, or article that is related to your search term. In database terms, however, the search looks for your term anywhere in the item's record.

subject terms: When you use a subject term, your search will only produce records of those items (articles, videos, or books) that have been indexed with that specific term.

This works the same way in both Avalon (the library catalog) and in our databases such as Academic Search Complete or Psychology Database (ProQuest). Of course, the subject headings used in each database are different from one another, as are the ones in Avalon. But the general idea is the same.

For Example:

If you try a keyword search such as: va programs

Avalon Keyword Search

You find a book's record that looks like this:

Book from keyword search "VA Programs"

However, you also get some unrelated books. Why?

  Red badge of courage graphic novel study guidePreserving public trust - Accreditation and human research participant protection programs

Because the two terms 'VA' and 'programs' were in each record, although the terms weren't even next to one another. (In fact, the VA in "The Red Badge of Courage Graphic Study Guide" is from the state abbreviation for Virginia!) By searching, instead, with the subject term 'Veterans -- Medical care -- United States.', however, you would find 22 books and videos, all of which are far more relevant and helpful for your topic.

Subject Heading for 'Veterans -- Medical Care -- United States'

You can also improve keyword searching by using "Quotation Marks" around the words of a phrase. This keeps the words together.

It's important, of course, that you do some initial searching with keywords in order to discover the best subject terms for your topic. Again, this is the same concept for both databases and the Avalon library catalog.


What does relevance mean in an era of tailored search results?

While many of us have come to expect relevant search results as part of any web or app search, evaluating the relevance of search results for a college paper requires critical evaluation skills.

Popular Searches

While a restaurant app like Yelp can give you a list of local places to eat, keep in mind that your zip code is a mediating factor in this search. Your zip code limits the results thus building relevance into the search results.

Likewise, you may see ads in Facebook or that seem related to your latest status update or product search. In this case the mediating factor is your FB status or a DVD you recently browsed. But, imagine if you changed one of those mediating factors. If you searched for “Sandburg” using Google in a Milwaukee zip code, the first hit will be “Carl Sandburg Hall”. If you were to do this search in Chicago, the first several results will be about Carl Sandburg’s poetry.

Scholarly Searches

In academic research, popularity and location are not necessarily effective or useful ways to mediate a search. This is why we focus on selecting a set of search terms that will lead to the best results. In academic research, you will choose your vocabulary carefully to build mediating factors into your search, evaluate the results for relevance to your topic and then edit your search with new or different vocabularies as you continue searching.

Glossary Terms

  • Keywords: Important words from your research topic or research question. Keywords are more flexible than phrases or sentences for searching. The more keywords in your search, the fewer search results you will get.

  • Database: A collection of information, usually electronic. Usually refers to a place you can search for articles in journals and magazines. Databases index (or organize) articles, so that they are online and searchable. An example of a UWM database would be: Academic Search Complete.

  • Subjects: To help you find information in the library, databases can be searched in groups by their subject. For example, you can find all of the Health Sciences databases in one list. Or, you may want to search the list of History databases.


The contents of the Information Literacy Tutorial may be reused with attribution. Please copy the following into new works based on the Information Literacy Tutorial.