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HIST 3115 Discovering Lewis and Clark (Fenn): Searching Tips

Tips for Developing a Search Strategy

Before starting your search, break down your topic into discrete concepts that represent its major aspects. These concepts will be used to develop search terms, that is, significant words or phrases (nouns or noun phrases work best) that can be used when searching in online catalogs or research databases. Your search terms will determine the quantity and relevance of results you retrieve.

  1. For more flexible searching, think of various ways to express these search terms:
    • broader terms (discipline or subject area of your key concept)
    • related terms (synonyms)
    • narrower terms (specific examples)
  2. You need to tailor the search terms to the type of material you are searching. When searching for: 
    • Books and other larger units, broader terms tend to work better because the topics covered by books tend to be more general.
    • Journal articles and other smaller units, narrower terms tend to work better because the topics covered by articles tend to be more specific.
    • Full text of books or articles, narrower terms or even unique terms like names or places tend to work better because you are searching on the full text.
  3. Adding terms that represent geographical or chronological facets may be useful.
  4. If you get too many results, try using narrower search terms or add another facet to your search. If you get too few results, try using broader terms, synonyms or subtract a facet from your search.
  5. Avoid using redundant or overlapping search terms, e.g. using "19th century" AND "Victorian period", or using "Middle Ages" in the International Medieval Bibliography. This is a common reason for getting too few results. 
  6. Thinking of terms couched in the language of the time period you are studying is particularly important for searching in full-text, primary-source databases. For historical synonyms, consult the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Combining Search Terms



  • AND: Hennepin AND "Native Americans" AND "New France" (must find all terms)
  • OR: "Native Americans" OR Indians (must find one of the terms)
  • NOT: "New France" NOT Quebec (must find first term NOT second term)



  • Phrases: "Native Americans" (must find that phrase in that order)
  • Synonyms("Native Americans" OR Indians) AND Hennepin
  • Truncation and wildcards
    religio* will find religion, religions, religious
    wom?n will find woman and women


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Frederick Carey
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