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Searches are made of of three main ingredients: the things you type in, directions on how to search for them, and the rules about the things you are searching.
The things you type in are keywords. Those keywords are then combined according to the default directions (known as boolean operators) to be searched for within each item within the database.
The result listis the product of the ingredients you gave the database.
Keyword vs. Subject
When you type things into database search boxes, you are, by default, doing what is known as a keywordsearch. When you are looking for information on certain topics it can be helpful to do a subject search instead. However, some databases' subject headers are not as robust or descriptive, so a highly targeted keyword search might be better in some cases. Here are some key differences between the two search types of searches:
searches anywhere in the record for the words you typed
provides a lot more, but possibly unrelated, results
useful if you know that you have the correct words
search is the same regardless of database
has been tagged by a librarian as being relevant to the assigned subject
provides fewer, but more relevant, results
useful when multiple terms describe the same idea (ex. drugs, pharmaceuticals, medication)
different databases might use different vocabulary
The default searches for your words within the same element using the word "and". This means that both words must be present. So if you were looking for a pizza with pepperoni AND mushrooms, you would not want one with only pepperoni or only mushrooms. Both ingredients must be on the pizza.
The word "or" is used to tell the database that as long as one or the other of your words show up, you would like to see it. If you wanted pizza with pepperoni OR mushrooms, you would be given all the options that have either pepperoni or mushrooms, including those that have both pepperoni and mushrooms.
You can use the word NOT to tell the database that you want certain things but not other things. If you would be happy with pepperoni OR mushrooms on your pizza but olives gross you out, you can tell the database not to include them with NOT.
How Library Stuff Works: Boolean Operator
The End Result
When you tell the database what words to use and how (in this example, othello AND handkerchief NOT performance) it give you back a result list containing records for each item that matches your request. Many databases will highlight where your search words show up in the record, so that you can see the context in which your word is used. The result list also provides basic information to help you evaluate the relevance and fit of the item, such as the name of the publication, the date it was published, and the type of item (such as a magazine or scholarly article) being shown. You can further limit your results using the limiters section of the database.