In 2012, I introduced some Boolean basics (and how the ever-popular Google doesn’t use standard Boolean) and other advanced search techniques. I’m going to build on these to demonstrate how they help, alongside other techniques, to broaden and narrow search results. These work for both databases and online.
Why Broaden or Narrow?
Sometimes when one searches, one cannot find what they need. Maybe there is too much information to sift through. Or there may not be enough information to successfully research a topic. In these cases, a researcher needs techniques to aid in locating proper results. In the first cases, narrowing a search helps to limit the results to only the most relevant information. In the latter case, broadening a search allows one to use similar terms to locate more results. The steps to these techniques are below.
Identify Search Terms
The first step to broadening or narrowing searches is to look at your topic and determine the main ideas. These will become your keywords. You will want keywords that are short and to-the-point. Never use long descriptions or sentences. Next, think of synonyms for your keywords and list them.
Topic Example: I need information about Civil War battles in Virginia.
Main ideas: Civil War/ battles/ Virginia
Synonyms: War of Succession, War Between the States / conflicts, skirmishes / Appomattox, Fredericksburg, Manassas I*
* Or other battle from this list.
Search Strategy Recap
The following strategies were discussed earlier, but are relevant to recap here. For Boolean, I’m just focusing on AND and OR for Boolean. Please see the earlier posts for NOT and further details.
AND: All keywords used are located within the results. This leads to fewer results and makes them more specific.
Example: “Civil War” and battles
OR: At least one keywords is found in the results. This type of searching is often used to search for synonyms of a keyword. It increases the numbers of results.
Example: battles or conflicts
Truncation and Wildcards: Broadens a search by locating variants of a keyword.
Example: battle* for battle and battles; m*n for man and men
How to Broaden Your Search Results
- Use synonyms combined with the OR Boolean operator.
- For this, a thesaurus is you best friend. I like the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus. Just be sure to select the thesaurus tab before searching.
- Use truncation.
- Remember, keyword terminology can vary among locations and this also accounts for singular vs. plural forms.
- If you can’t locate an exact phrase, try removing the quotations. Sometimes a phrase has changed over time or words may unknowingly be out-of-order.
How to Narrow Your Search Results
- Add another keyword and combine it with the original keyword using an AND operator.
- Use more specific keywords or key phrases.
- Think, is there better, narrower term? If so, try it. For example, try “First Bull Run” instead of simply “Bull Run.”
- Use advanced search.
- Databases and online book catalogs offer it as an option near the search box while Google offers it once a search is preformed; to access it click on the gear on the right-hand side and select “advanced search.”
- Common fields to limit by are:
- Both: date, language.
- Database/catalog: author, journal title, abstract, scholarly or peer-reviewed, publication type (journal, e-books, etc.).
- Web: file type, last updated, domain.
- Limiting by title or abstract can lead to greater focus and accuracy, but can exclude some relevant results.
- Peer-reviewed journals are journals that have their submissions read by experts that focus on the article’s subject matter to ensure accuracy. This type of article is preferred in academic research due to its trustworthiness.
Any questions? Does this help? Is anything confusing?
Disclaimer: Some parts of this post were based on a common Ellis Library instruction session outline handout. I and others have modified it many times before.