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Skills at Library Essentials

Guides to search skills and using library research resources

Top search tips

As well as combining your keywords with Boolean operators, there are a few other techniques you can use to improve your search and get better, more relevant results.

Below are a few of the most useful search tips you can use either to broaden or narrow your search and to make sure that the results you get are as relevant as possible to your topic. However, do remember that different databases will work in slightly different ways. It's always worth looking at the help or search tips section of the database you're using to check how things work. 

Top search tips

What is phrase searching?

Wherever you have a keyword/ concept that is more than one word long (i.e. a phrase), you can use quotation marks to keep the phrase together in your search. 

Without quotation marks, you will find search results containing your words, but they won't necessarily appear together. 

So, for example, if you were searching for social media, without quotation marks, you may well find other, unrelated subjects in your results, such as social anxiety, or media studies. 

Phrase searching will therefore reduce the number of results you get but it will also, more importantly, make the results you do get much more relevant to your topic. 

Phrase searching examples

Here are a few example searches performed in Library Search with and without phrase searching, to demonstrate how it works and where you might want to use it:

Search Number of results
social media 439,627
"social media" 228,920
cognitive behavioural therapy 110,341
"cognitive behavioural therapy" 15,854
open access publishing 53,586
"open access publishing" 42,450

What is truncation?

Most databases allow truncation, which uses a symbol to replace word endings. This will save you time and expand your search to include plurals and related words. 

This is sometimes also referred to as stem searching, as any words with the given stem will be found. 

The most common symbols for truncation are: * ? #. Check the help section of the database you are using to see which one to use. 

To use truncation, just shorten the word to its root and add the relevant truncation symbol. 

Truncation examples

A search for comput* will find computer, computers, computing, computable, computation etc.

Femini* will find feminism, feminist, feminine etc. 

Politic* will find politics, political, politician etc. 

Avoid truncation overload!

Trying to truncate a word too early can retrieve many unrelated and unwanted results:

A search for comp* will find computer, computers, computable, comparable, comparison, compromise and more!

What is a wildcard?

Wildcards work in a similar way to truncation but within a word. They can be used to substitute for a letter, letters or no letter within a word. 

They are useful where you have, for example, British and American English spelling variants or irregular plurals. 

They will broaden your search by including variants within one search. 

The most common symbol used is a question mark (for one/ no letter substitution). However, this is not the case in all databases. Check the help or search tips guide of the database you are searching in to find out which one to use. Other symbols which are sometimes used include: !,*, or #. These other symbols can sometimes be used in different ways, for example to represent more than one letter within a word. 

Wildcard search examples

A search for gr?y will find grey or gray

wom?n will find woman or women

col?r will find color or colour 



What is proximity searching?

Proximity searching allows you to look for terms that may appear near each other in your results. This can be useful when you are looking for keywords that can be expressed in different ways. 

Usually, proximity operators will be a combination of a letter (N or W) or word (NEAR) and a number specifying the distance (number of words) between your search terms. 


Near operators (usually represented by N or NEAR) will find words regardless of the order in which they appear. 


The Within operator (usually W) finds words in the order in which you entered them. 

Depending on the database you're using, the way you carry out a proximity search may vary. Have a look in the help or search skills guide of the database you are using to check. The number of words' distance you can select will vary from database to database as well, with some having limits of, say, 10 and others allowing a hundred or more. Again check the help section of the database for more information. 

Proximity searching examples

A search for 'election N5 reform' will find results that have up to 5 words between the two terms, so for example election reform and election procedure reform or reform of election law. 

'University N2 Essex' will find results for University of Essex or Essex University. 

Searching for hotel W3 management will give you results for hotel management, hotel events management, hotel and events management and so on, but would not find management of a hotel.