Searching takes time and is often a trial and error experience. You'll often find that you need to vary your search terms, try more than one database, even modify your research topic depending upon how much information is or isn't available about it. This is normal! For best results, budget time for searching and don't leave it to the last minute.
Before you begin searching any of the library databases, it's a good idea to brainstorm search terms (words) that describe your research topic. Say, for example, you've been reading Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, which is set in England after the First World War and includes a character, Septimus Smith, who is a former soldier suffering from a mental illness called shell shock. You'd like to find out if any scholars have discussed how Woolf portrays shell shock in the novel. What terms might you search?
Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway shell shock
Sometimes you may find your search yields too many results for you to easily browse through. Narrowing your search by adding another term can help return fewer, more focused results on your topic. For example, to focus the earlier mentioned search on the portrayal of shell shock in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to results that specifically discuss the character Septimus Smith, you could add his name to the search :
Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway shell shock Septimus
(Note that this is just a hypothetical example - in reality all articles discussing shell shock in this novel would mention Septimus because he's the only major character suffering from shell shock, though there are other characters experiencing trauma.)
Keep in mind that there may not always be an article, chapter, or book that's exactly about your topic. That's okay! You can apply the observations from more general analysis, like an article about how Virginia Woolf portrays shell shock or trauma in her other writings, to the work you're primarily interested in discussing.
Also known as Boolean operators, search connectors are a designated subset of words used to combine your search terms in specific ways. The three Boolean operators and what they do are as follows:
If you enter your search terms in a single search box with no connectors between them, most databases will assume that you want to do an AND search and try to find only results that contain all of your search terms.
However, most databases also offer an advanced search option that allows you to fine tune your search using the AND, OR, NOT Boolean operators. Advanced search screens offer multiple search boxes so you can enter each concept that's part of your search on a different line, and choose how to combine the terms in each box by means of drop-down menus that let you select which search operator to use. For example, in MLA International Bibliography's advanced search form you can put Virginia Woolf (author), Mrs. Dalloway (title of work), and shell shock (aspect of work to explore) each on a different line, combined with AND:
Using an advanced search form and Boolean operators can be even more powerful (and a time saver) when you use it to search multiple variations on your search terms at the same time. For example, you could use one of the advanced search form's boxes to enter all of the synonyms for "shell shock" separated by "or." The part of the search in that box will look for any items in the database containing one or more of those terms, then combine those results with the search terms entered in the other boxes.
Note that if you're getting perfectly good results using a basic, single box search, you don't need to move on to using an advanced search form. Just keep in mind that advanced search options are available to you if you need them.
A couple of other useful search functions that most databases have are the options to search exact phrases and to truncate words.
Using quotation marks to enclose search terms ensures that the database will look for the terms in that order and not separated from each other. This is particularly useful for searching proper names ("Virginia Woolf"), titles ("Mrs. Dalloway"), and multiword concepts or expressions ("post traumatic stress disorder"). Most databases will try to find terms near to each other first even if you don't use quotation marks to enclose them, but if they can't find any near each other, they'll also return results with the terms separated.
Truncation is useful for finding different endings of a word. For example, if you wanted to search for all variations on child (child, child's, children, children's), truncating the word child by putting an asterisk on the end of it (child*) will find all of its possible endings. Be careful how far you truncate a word, however, because you might get results you don't intend. For instance, eco* would find not only ecology and ecological but also economic, economical, economics. Different databases may use different symbols for truncation (check the database's built in help information), but the asterisk * is most common.
Library guides like this are intended to empower you to do research on your own, but LITS librarians are available to help if you have questions. Don't hesitate to ask! Some online options for getting help: