Library Guide: Using Keywords: Time-Saving Tips for Databases and Search Engines–Purchase College (April, 2001)

Using Keywords: Time-Saving Tips for Databases and Search Engines

What is a keyword?
A keyword is any searchable term in a database record. Depending on the database, keywords can come from the title, author, subject, or (in some cases) anywhere in the record. Choice of keywords can limit or expand your search results.

How do I choose a keyword?
Choosing a keyword is up to you, but keep in mind that a keyword should be a central concept term that will focus in on your topic while giving you a workable number of records. Remember: vary your keyword terms. Do several searches using different keyword terms in combination. Singular and plural terms and synonyms may retrieve different numbers of records.


Boolean operators.
Boolean operators are words that link your keyword terms and can expand or limit your searches. The most common Boolean operators are:

AND (the default operator in most databases): Use AND to limit your search results to only those records containing these specific keywords. For example:

women AND Greece” will bring up only records containing both terms.

OR: Use OR to expand your search results. For example:

women OR Greece” will bring up all records containing “women” and all the records containing the term “Greece”—whether or not the terms are related. OR is especially useful for synonyms such as college OR higher education OR academia.”

NOT: Use NOT to limit your search results. For example:

women AND Greece NOT Athens” will bring up records containing “women” and “Greece” but excludes records that contain “Athens.”

Truncation signs.
Truncation signs (sometimes called “wildcards”) function like Boolean operators, only they expand your searches. Truncation allows you to use shorter terms. Two of the most popular truncation signs are:

*: The asterisk allows you to expand on a shortened term. For example:

wom*” will bring up all the records that contain words starting with “wom:” Womack [an author’s name], woman, womanhood, womanizer, womankind, womanly, womb, wombat, women, and womenfolk.

?: The question mark replaces the letter in a keyword to expand it’s meaning. For example:

wom?n” will bring up all records with the words: woman, womanly, womankind, and women.

Because truncation signs vary from database to database, you must read the help screens to tell which signs can be used in searching.

Combining keywords.
All databases allow you to combine Boolean operators and some allow you to combine Boolean operators and truncation signs. Coupled with some good keywords, you can construct an excellent search strategy. For example, if your topic is “women in rural Greece during the Roman Empire”:

First search: peasants AND women AND Greece”

Second search: farmers AND (girls OR women) AND (Greece NOT Athens)”

Third search: farmers AND wom?n AND Greece”

 … And, once you really understand searching:

Fourth search: peasant* OR farm* AND wom?n AND Gree* NOT Athen*”

A word about punctuation.
Depending on the database, you may not be able to use any punctuation marks when searching. Remember that some punctuation marks are used as truncation signs. Separating an inverted author’s name (i.e. last name, first name) by a comma may not be allowed.

If you need help, our reference staff and faculty are here to assist you. Visit the Reference desk or call 251-6410

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