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English 199: Introduction to the Study of Literature

Give yourself time to search!

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.

Generating search terms

Choosing words that describe your topic

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?

Usually a search will contain these three things:
  • Author name
  • Title of the work
  • Term or terms describing the aspect of the work you wish to explore
For example, you might begin your search using the terms:

Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway shell shock

MLA International Bibliography database basic search box with the terms Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway shell shock entered
Usually the author and title names are fairly straightforward. Just be aware that some authors use pseudonyms and some literary works have variant titles so searching those pseudonyms and variant titles, too, can get you more results. Choosing words that describe the aspect of the work that you wish to explore can be the most challenging part of searching. It's a good idea to brainstorm a small list of synonyms that describe the same thing. Reference works like a thesaurus or an encyclopedia (even Wikipedia) - can be helpful for this purpose.  For example, some other terms that can be used for shell shock are 
  • combat fatigue
  • battle fatigue
  • post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD for short)
You could run your search again using any one of those terms in place of "shell shock" to see if it finds more results:
MLA International Bibliography database basic search box with the terms Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway post traumatic stress disorder entered
A further way to refine your search terms is to look at your search results, especially the records for articles or books that appear to be most closely related to your topic. If you click into a good result's full record, you can look at the keywords or subject headings that the database's developers used to describe the item. These may suggest additional search terms to use that will help you find even more information related to your topic.

Narrowing your search

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

MLA International Bibliography database basic search box with Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway shell shock Septimus entered

(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.)

Broadening your search

Sometimes you may find that you’re not getting enough (or any) results on your topic. Broadening your search by removing a search term or two can sometimes help return more results. For example, if you find very little or nothing by searching the terms
Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway shell shock
You can broaden your search to see if anyone has written about the portrayal of shell shock in any of Virginia Woolf’s works by searching
Virginia Woolf shell shock
Even more broadly I might search
shell shock literature


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 general in her other works, to the work you're primarily interested in discussing.

Search connectors

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:

  • AND - using AND to connect your search terms tells the database to find only results that contain all of the search terms used
  • OR - using OR to connect your search terms tells the database to find results that contain at least one or more of the search terms used
  • NOT - using NOT to connect your search terms tells the database to exclude results that contain any search term that you place after NOT

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:

MLA International Bibliography database advanced search screen with the terms Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, and shell shock each in a different search box with AND selected as the connector between them

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.

MLA International Bibliography database Advanced Search screen with Virginia Woolf entered in the first search box, Mrs. Dalloway in the second search box, and shell shock or battle fatigue or ptsd or post traumatic stress disorder in the third search box

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 it's available to you if you need it.

Phrase and truncation searching

A couple of other useful search functions that most databases have are the options to search exact phrases and to truncate words.

Phrase searching

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. 

One good article might lead to another

Found a good article or book on your topic? A useful way to find more information that's relevant to your research is to check the article or book's works cited or references.  Another strategy for discovering additional relevant information - and seeing where the scholarly conversation on your topic has gone since the article or book you first found was published - is to find out if any other scholars have cited the original article or book. What follows are some tips on tracking down citations in either direction.

Tracking down citations in an article or book

Browse through an article's, book's (or book chapter's) references or works cited. If you see any references that look like they are also about your research topic, search for them in Discover.

Finding other works that cite an article or book

Search for your article or book in Google Scholar. For some results, Google Scholar will show a Cited By link that, when clicked on, will take you to a list of other articles and/or books that cite the one you just searched.

Ask for help if you need it!

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:

  • Email Mary, the librarian who maintains this research guide, especially for assistance with literature research 
  • Email to contact all the research librarians
  • Schedule an appointment with Mary or any other research librarian
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