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Basic Computer Search Techniques

 

The incredible growth in the amount of electronic information that has become available in the last few years has made the ability to search and navigate these electronic sources increasingly important. More often than not researching a topic now includes using not only print sources, it also requires accessing information via the Internet, Online Public Access Catalogs (OPAC’s), CD-ROM’s, and commercial databases such as Westlaw, Firstsearch, and Lexis.

Despite the lack of standardization among the design of these various sources certain standard search techniques and strategies can be applied, with some variations, to almost all electronic searches. The following basic searching concepts have been compiled by the Florida Coastal School of Law Library and Technology Center to help make navigating the maze of electronic information a little easier. Good luck and good hunting!


Search Strategies and Techniques

Prior to getting into the actual mechanics of the search process there are several steps to take that will save you time and make your search more successful:

 

  • 1. Choose a source that will fill your information needs. This can be a difficult decision, and is a point where many searchers make their lives more difficult than they need to be. Most sources will have an information screen that will tell you what information is included, dates covered, etc. (the Internet being an obvious exception!). Check any printed material you have access to that describes the source. If you are unsure how to make your decision, ask a librarian for help.

    Note: Searching the Internet will not give you access to information contained in commercial databases! 

     
  • 2. Formulate your search strategy before you start your search. This is often the most important part of a search and one which is too often overlooked. Take the time to develop a well thought-out question or topic area and write down the key concepts associated with it. Think of synonymous terms that may be applied. Use these as keywords or phrases when you start your search.

    Now for the search itself:
  • 1. Use Help/Instruction Information Screens. Every search tool has a spot where you can get help or instruction on how to use that specific tool. Use it! Each one has things that are specific to that tool. It is often a good idea to find a research tool that works for you and stick with it. Once you are familiar with it you can speed up your search and get more items relevant to your topic. The Internet can be an exception here also. You can often do the same search in various search engines and directories and get varying results, so you may want to search using several different tools (For information on Internet Search Engines see other library handout).

     
  • 2. Boolean Operators. Don’t let the name throw you. This just means connecting your search terms with AND, OR or NOT when you are entering your terms. Be careful because these operators are not intuitive. Using AND will actually limit your search and using OR will expand your search. Using NOT should be used with caution as it may sometimes restrict items relevant to your search.

    Boolean Searching Examples:
  • (a) stress management OR anxiety - This will retrieve every item which has either stress management, anxiety or both somewhere in the item. The use of OR will broaden your search.
  • (b) stress AND counseling - This will retrieve only items which contain both stress and counseling. The use of AND helps to restrict your search when you get an unwieldy number of returns.
  • (c) stress NOT burnout - The first term but not the second must appear in the item. This will eliminate items that contain both terms so be careful about using NOT in your search.

     
  • 3. Truncation. There are basically two types of truncation; root truncation and internal truncation. Truncation symbols will vary depending on what tool you are searching. Some common symbols are *, !, ?, and $. Root truncation (or root expander) is generally used more frequently because it will return plural and other forms of your search term, but use it with caution because it can also return unrelated terms (see example below).
    Root truncation example: symbol* will return symbol, symbolism, symbols, symbolic, etc. Internal truncation example: wom*n will return woman or women.
  • 4. Proximity Operators. These will allow you to search for terms within a specific number of words of each other, within the same sentence, or within the same paragraph. Often they also allow you to specify the order in which the search terms appear. The usage of proximity operators varies greatly among various search tools so you will need to refer to the help or instruction pages within the tool you are using for specific uses.
  • 5. Limiting. Many search tools will allow you to limit your search by date of publication, publication type, location of the search, type of media, or search fields such as title, author, subject heading, etc. Limiting also varies greatly from one search tool to another so refer to the help or instruction pages within the tool.
  • 6. Repetition. It is important to realize that in many instances you must repeat your search a number of times in order to get results. Many times you may have to repeat your search because you are getting plenty of results, but none that are relevant to your topic. Failing to find information doesn’t mean it isn’t there! Check for misspellings. Try your search in other search tools. Try different keywords and phrases or different combinations of operators. Remember, if you just can’t seem to get to the information you need you can... Ask a Librarian!