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NWACC Library

Search Hacks

A quick guide for getting the most out of library search tools and academic databases

Make It an "Exact Phrase"

"Exact phrase" searching involves putting two or more words inside quotation marks.

Putting words inside quotation marks turn them into a single word.

"Black cat" looks for results with these 2 words as a phrase.

Without the quotation marks, the tool will look for the words black and cat anywhere in the result.


post traumatic stress disorder vs "post traumatic stress disorder"

premature infant vs. "premature infant"

no quotes  vs. undefined

no quotes     vs.   with quotation marks

Leverage Subject Terms

Library search tools use a "controlled vocabulary" to tag each result. These tags are called subjects, subject headings, or indexing terms.

Subjects #tag the source and help you find others like it.

Often the subject terms are not words that you might expect.


Instead of Dieting use REDUCING diets    

Instead of High blood pressure use HYPERTENSION    

Most search tools provide a list of their subject terms or indexing terms.


Sometimes this list is called a Thesaurus.


Accept Suggestions

As you enter your search terms, the tool will give suggestions.

Suggestions are based on frequent searches and are often very effective to use.

They might lead you into a direction you had not considered.

screenshot      screenshot

Nest Your Search Terms

Place certain terms in parentheses to “nest” them or combine them when searching. This allows for a high level of specificity in your search.

It works just like basic math when (1 + 4) - 3 =  5 - 3 = 2. The words inside the parenthesis are searched first and are then followed by the rest of your search terms.

(health care OR medical care) AND culture

(premature OR preterm) infant

Get Wild, Truncate!

Truncation lets you search for a term and variant spellings of that term. 

Use an asterisk [ * ] or a question mark [ ? ] at the end of a root word to get results from any form of the root word. This is called "truncation" or "stemming."

These same symbols used in the middle of a word are called “wild cards.” Using [ ? ] will substitute only one letter. Using [ * ] will substitute an unlimited number of letters.

Teen*: will find teen, teens, teenage, teenager, teenagers, etc.

Kar?n: will find Karen, Karin, Karyn, Karon, Karum, Karan, etc.

Kar*n: will find Karen, Karin, Karyn, Karmen, Karsavin, Kardashian, etc.