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History: Research Paper Basics 2024: Searching Tips

This guide is designed to help history students successfully complete their next research paper assignment

Searching our library catalog and databases is different from searching the web using common search engines such as Google. It is important to use common search techniques that may apply to many different databases and search engines. Below are several tips to help you retrieve relevant articles, books and other materials from our catalog and databases.

Demo: Searching a Database

Quick Tips on Searching Databases

Keyword Searching

Use single words relevant to your topic. 

Use a thesaurus to identify synonyms for keywords found in article titles, abstracts and subject headings.

You can narrow your search by combining multiple key words using the phrase "and"; broaden your search with "or". For more on this technique click here.

Put search terms with more than one word in quotes. For example, “Industrial Revolution”.

Truncation symbols such as * or $ allow you to search words with multiple endings as a single search concept. For example, "immigra*" will yield results for immigrant, immigrants, immigrate, immigration and immigrating. In many databases, a question mark can be used to represent a single character in a word. For example, "colo?r" will yield results for color and colour.

Use parenthesis to nest one search into another such as "Industrial Revolution" AND (immigration or migration).

Keep a list of useful keywords and search terms to use in subsequent searches.


Find Articles by Type

Literature reviews: Combine key words with terms such as "literature review" or "review" to find literature reviews on your topic. Note: many databases allow you to limit search results by document type or publication type and this can help you locate specific types of articles such as literature reviews, newspaper articles, speeches, reports, obituaries etc...

Primary research: Primary research articles represent the original work of the author (s). They describe the methods and conclusions of the author's own research and typically contain five sections: Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Results and Discussion. Depending on the context, primary research articles may also be called empirical articles or evidenced based articles. Keywords such as “study” or “survey” will help you retrieve an article that is empirical or evidence-based.  Words such as “methods”, “methodology”, "discussion" "qualitative", "quantitative", "empirical", "participants", “results”, “findings”, "theory" or "theoretical" may also yield useful results. Review the article’s abstract and title for words that may help you find primary research articles.

Expand Your Search Results

1. Use keywords found in article titles and abstracts to conduct more searches.

2. Use the subject headings linked to each article's abstract to refine successive searches. Most databases highlight or bold subject terms so you can locate them easily among your search results.

3. Use the works cited page in the articles you find to locate literature reviews and primary research sources. You should utilize the references of all your resources to help you get a firm grasp of the literature on your topic.

4. Use results to identify trusted journals in your field and search recent issues for current information on your topic.

5. Identify experts. When the same author appears frequently, you’ve found an expert. Your paper should include the work of experts in your field.

6. After conducting several searches to gather key words, concepts, authors and resources, consider limiting successive searches only to scholarly / peer-reviewed articles (many databases allow you to limit results this way). For more on scholarly and peer reviewed sources visit the finding articles tab on this guide.