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ENGL 217CY: Cyberpunk in Asia

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

Finding secondary sources on works by well known authors without getting overwhelmed

Well known authors, especially those work has been around for many years, often have a lot of literary criticism written about their work. For example, there's a wealth of literary analysis for Toni Morrison and William Faulkner. This can be a challenge because you may find so much information that it's difficult to figure out which sources to use. Some tips for sifting through sources to find what will be most useful for your topic . . .

Start with tools like reference books or companions to get an overview of an author's works


Literature reference works

Search on your author in one of the reference works below to get an overview of their life, works, and themes that appear in their works. This information - especially the themes - can help you figure out a specific aspect of their work to focus your research topic on and terms describing that aspect that you can use when you begin searching the library's databases for more information.  Some reference works even include bibliographies of additional readings that can give you a sampling of critical articles and books on the author's works, sometimes even pointing out seminal works of criticism. If one of those titles looks interesting, look it up in Discover to see if the library has access to it.


Companions are books containing collections of critical essays exploring different aspects of an author's works. Aside from offering a sampling of critical analysis on a writer, companions usually contain introductory information about them. The example below is a companion to the author Margaret Atwood. You can find more in the Five College Libraries Catalog or Discover by searching on an author's name  and the term "companion." 

Use a literature database or databases

If you know you want to find scholarly secondary sources on a literary topic, one quick way to begin shrinking your search results down to a manageable size is to use databases that cover only scholarly publications on literature. Start with the Literature Databases in the Tools for Finding Secondary Sources part of this guide.

Narrow your search terms

For a well known, well studied author, running a search on just the author name and title of the work you wish to research is likely to yield more results than you can easily browse through.  For example, at the time of writing this, running a search on Faulkner and Sound and the Fury in the MLA International Bibliography returned 781 results. To take that number down to a more manageable number, add search terms that more narrowly describe a particular aspect of Faulkner's novel that you are most interested in exploring. For example, adding the term "identity" to the search as follows

MLA International Bibliography with search terms Sound and the Fury, Faulkner identity entered in the three search boxes

takes the number of results down to 8. 


Finding secondary sources on works by newer or lesser known authors

Newer, lesser known authors present a different challenge: you may have difficulty finding any secondary sources about their work. Some search strategies that may help . . .

Reference works 

Search on your author in a reference work to get an overview of their life, works, and themes that appear in their works. Some reference works include bibliographies of additional readings that can give you a sampling of articles about the author's works. If one of those titles looks interesting, look it up in Discover to see if the library has access to it. Note that for newer authors in particular, you may find more book reviews than scholarly articles analyzing their work.

Search across multiple databases

Discover, which simultaneously searches the Five College Libraries Catalog and most of the library's databases, is a good tool to use if you're having a hard time finding information about an author. Not only does it across many databases, but it also searches popular as well as scholarly sources. Popular sources like newspapers and magazines are a good source of book reviews which may be the only kind of analysis you're able to find for a newer author or recently published book.

JStor is an all scholarly, all full text digital library that allows you search not just citations for but also the full text of every article and book that it contains. Where a database like Discover only searches brief descriptions (citations or records) of each article or book it indexes, a full text database like JStor also searches the full contents of each article and book it contains. This means that even if the description doesn't contain any of your search terms, if they appear anywhere in the actual text of an article or book, JStor will find them.

Broaden your search terms

Can't find seem to find any articles or books by searching on the author name and title of the book you're researching?  Try broadening your search terms. For example, if you were trying to find information about information about Svetlana Alexievich's book The Last Witnesses and tried searching on the author's name and the title of the book in the MLA International Bibliography, you'd get 0 results. However, if you were to search on the author's name and the broader concept of war:

MLA International Bibliography advanced search screen with Svetlana Alexievich and war entered in the search boxes

You'd get 9 results. Keep in mind that some of those results, when you read the actual articles or book chapters, may discuss The Last Witnesses, it's just that the title of that book wasn't included in the brief description of the article that the database searched. It's also possible to apply analysis about another work by the same author to the work you're paper topic is about. For some authors you might need to go broader still and search only on the author's name to find any secondary sources on them. There are only 55 results altogether in MLA for Svetlana Alexievich, which is not too difficult to browse through if you have to.

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 advanced search options are available to you if you need them.

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. 

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:

Finding secondary sources about film and art

Similar to searching for information about a work of literature, when searching for information about a film or work of art your search will usually contain these three things:

  • Creator name (in this case, instead of the author name you'd use the name of the director for a film, or the name of the artist for a work of art)
  • Title of the work (in this case, the title of the film or title of the artwork)
  • Term or terms describing the aspect of the work that you wish to explore

If you're not sure of the name of the director of a film, a useful resource for looking that information up is IMDb:

MHC Accessibility Barriers Form