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LRC (ULIB1001) - Search Basics: Step 3 - Refine the Search

Search Basics - Library Research in Context module 1

Step 3) Refine the Search

Now that we have our personalized relevant results, we can click into one of them and see where else we can take the search from here. The results themselves, called "item records," actually hold some very useful tools for refining a search called "subject headings." These can be used throughout the search process and are especially useful in Step 3.


Step 3) Refine the Search

  • To start on the same page, let's get back to the article we found at the end of Step 2: "All jumbled up: authenticity in American culinary history" (link to the article's item record).
    • To read the article itself, we can click on either the "Linked Full Text" link or the "UI Link" link on the leftmost side of the page (screenshot). Whenever you search and click on a result, look in this area to actually access the resource.
      • If there are "Linked Full Text" links in this section, please use those, but if there's only a "UI Link" link then you can still most likely access the article. We'll go over that in a later module, or if you want you can try it out and ask a librarian if you have any questions. Feel free to ask any of the professors of this course or, if you want more immediate help, click here to talk to a librarian immediately (Monday-Friday 9:00 am-5:00 pm, Sunday 5:00 am-9:00 pm).
  • Let's say we read this article and found it useful, and want more things like it. We can use the information in the resource's item record to actually do so.
    • Imagine that the database is an enormous collection of filing cabinets. An item record would be the map that would help you find the exact cabinet a specific article is in. If that article is useful to you, then the other articles in that same cabinet are probably going to be useful to you as well. There might also be other cabinets mentioned in the item record that can have related articles that could also be useful to you.
      • To find those other related cabinets, you can use the "subject headings" contained in the item record. To learn more about doing this, look at Step 3a below!

Step 3a) Subject Headings

Subject headings allow you to quickly find resources related to a previously found useful resource, so they can save you a lot of time and reveal to you new avenues for searching. Learn how to find them in item records below.


Step 3a) Subject Headings

  • Let's use the item record for "All jumbled up: authenticity in American culinary history" (link to the article's item record) as an example. Please click on its link to get started.
  • Looking in the middle of the item record, we can see things next to the headings "Subject Terms" and "Author-Supplied Keywords" (screenshot). These are exactly what we're looking for!
    • To further our filing cabinet analogy from the above box, the words in these two sections are the names of the filing cabinets where this article can be found.
    • In other words, these words are the categories that the database puts this article in, which is great to know because now that we know what those categories are we can actually explore them ourselves and find other, similar articles that we might not have known to search for before!
  • To explore one of these subject headings, click on the topmost one, "Cookies" (screenshot). If there are no blue links available to click on, please click here (link to search results) to see the search results and continue with this example.
  • The database will then take you to a list of every article in it that has "Cookies" as a subject heading, which at the time of this writing is 1,900 (link to search results).
    • This is the digital equivalent of going to the library to pick up a specific book on a shelf and then looking around that book for similar things that you didn't know about before but that might be super-relevant to your project! You might find something that really helps you with your work, so please look at the different subject headings of relevant search results whenever you're trying to find articles.
  • Now that you've explored a subject heading, we can start to wind down and think about how our next searches should go. To start doing that, please go to Step 3b, to the right of this box.

Step 3b) Reflect and Return to Step 1

When you finish any search and get a list of results, you always learn more about the thing you're researching. You can use this information to better understand what to look for, and what new interesting things you might also want to learn about. In fact, during the course of searching you might actually find something that interests you so much that you want to make your whole project about it! This is actually one of the best ways to find things to do projects about. It is also one of the best ways to keep developing your searches in order to find results that are even more relevant to your projects or interests. To that end, thinking about this information at the end of a search is a useful step in itself.


Step 3b) Reflect and Return to Step 1

Reflect: What did I learn from my current search? For the purposes of this example search we've been doing, let's think about what we've learned about the history of cookies from this search.

  • Useful keywords: "history," "food," "cookies"
    • They call "cookies" "biscuits" around the world, so "biscuits" should be a keyword you use as well!
  • There are many types of articles about cookies in this database, including popular magazine articles, academic journal articles, book reviews, and newspaper articles.
  • From the article that we looked at, "All jumbled up: authenticity in American culinary history" (link to item record), we learned that the database has categories with articles about "cookies," "American culinary history," and "food history," which we might want to explore further.
    • There's also apparently a type of American cookie called "jumbles" (which the article is about) that might be interesting to learn more about.
      • Maybe we want to make our project more specific and look at the history of a specific type of cookie, like jumbles?
        • Then, we have to start searching for things like "jumbles," "American culinary history," etc.


Return to Step 1: With all this information, we can go back to the beginning of Step 1 and create new searches to better find the things that are relevant to our project until we find enough that we feel comfortable moving on. As you can see, the search process is a circle, and every search you do helps you learn more. So, if you're ever doing a lot of searches and aren't finding good resources, please don't feel frustrated or like you're wasting your time! It's all part of the process, and the more you do it the easier and faster it gets!


There are also other search tools that can be useful in this step, to search more effectively in databases. We'll continue our cookies example search for one extra step in "Other Search Tools: Exact Phrase Searching and Truncation" below.

Other Search Tools: Exact Phrase Searching and Truncation

Databases have other tools that searchers can use to better find relevant results. Learn about two of the most powerful, exact phrase searching and truncation, below.


Exact Phrase Searching

  • To look for an exact phrase, when you're typing it into a search box put it inside quotation marks "like this".
  • For our example search, let's say we want to learn more about "American culinary history," so we want to search that phrase.
    • If we search the phrase without quotation marks, the database will think that you want things that mention "American" and "culinary" and "history" and "American culinary" and "American history" and "culinary history" (basically, any mix of the words in the search box). Of course, we're not interested in anything but "American culinary history," so if we search it in quotation marks then the database knows that we only want things that mention "American culinary history" in that exact way.
      • To compare, here (link to search results) is a link to a search of "American culinary history" without the quotation marks around it, and here (link to search results) is a link to a search of "American culinary history" that did use exact phrase searching and so used the quotation marks. The search without exact phrase searching had around 350 results, while the search with exact phrase searching had 16!
  • This is a powerful tool later on in the search process, when you have a better idea of what you're looking for. You can search for it exactly, and if the results aren't looking good then you can go back to more general searches or other tools to sharpen your search.



  • To look for various versions of the same general word/concept at the same time without having to type them all out, you can use truncation (*).
  • In our example search, say you wanted to learn more about bakeries and how bakers actually bake cookies. You can search "bakery," "baking," and "bake" in their own separate search boxes, but that will take a long time to type out and you might not be aware of other relevant words like "bakers." You can skip all that and search all of the baking words at the same time by using truncation and searching for "bak*".
    • What this does is tell the database to bring back results about everything that starts with "bak" which will include all the words you were originally looking for and other words you might not even be aware of.
    • To see how this works, let's do a search. Go to Academic Search Elite again (link) and type "cookies" in the top search box and "bak*" in the second and run the search (screenshot).
      • The search (link to search results) returns everything the database has about cookies and baking! We didn't have to type out all the different versions of baking either!
  • There are other, more advanced types of truncation-like tools available in the database as well. To learn more about them, click here (link to database help file).
    • These truncation tools might also be different in every database, so if you have any questions about using them in other databases please look at their help files or ask a librarian for help!


With all of these steps and search tools, you should be ready to search for things in the future. These steps and tools aren't just limited to academic searching. You can use most of the concepts from them in any type of search, such as Google searches! The specifics might be different (maybe they don't allow you to use truncation, maybe the exact phrase search uses the single quotation mark 'like this' instead of the double "like this"), but either way knowing about these tools will allow you to be a better searcher both now and in the future, even after you graduate.


Now that you're done with the tutorial, please go to the Next Steps tab above (or click here) to finish this LibGuide!