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Information Literacy: Guide for Students

HOWLER Videos on Finding Sources


Help Online With Library Education & Research

Searching Strategies

Search Terms: How do I describe my topic?

Most researchers confront an initial struggle to come up with a good set of terms that describe a particular topic. For example:

Topic idea: Dangerous driving Research question: What type of driver behavior is most risky?

1. Do a preliminary search

As you begin to brainstorm ideas, you might also try some preliminary searches with the terms you have already identified:

Dangerous / driving / driver behavior / risk

You might wish to start a search with the most important terms. Let's try 'dangerous driving".

Academic Search Complete
Limit Your Results

Image: Record of article on distracted driving from library database

2. Identify the best 'subject terms' for your topic

This might be a good article, but even if it is not, note the subject terms associated with this topic:

  • Text messaging & driving
  • Distracted driving
  • Accident prevention
  • Situational awareness
  • Cell phones

And those are from just one of the hundreds of articles your initial searches might produce.

3. Construct a new search

Using the most relevant of these and any others you discover, construct a new search! You can start with a 'broad' search and narrow as you go:

Search box with search terms text messaging and driving

By searching with the terms that library databases prefer (subject terms), you should yield better, more relevant articles.

Your research or exploratory essay will be far better if you:

  • Seek out and review a variety of sources
  • Go well beyond the 'minimum requirements' of your assignment
  • Search for sources in library catalogs, databases, and the web
  • Conduct several searches using a variety of terminology related to your topic
  • Ask a librarian, "What might I be missing?" once you have searched for a variety of resources

1. Books and documentary (non-fiction) videos are great for:

  • Addressing the basic facts, history, background or major themes for your topic. 

Find books, DVDs, streaming media, and ebooks in the Madison College Libraries catalog

Madison College Libraries Logo

Further Reading:

2. Try a 'Quick Search'!

On the 'Articles' tab of the Find box, try the quick search to get a sense of what source types are available for your topic:

Image: Screen shot of 'articles' tab on Madison College Libraries home page. Box features a 'quick search' of several databases at once.

You are also welcome to try this one:

Research databases
Limit Your Results


Above you can see the types of sources that are most plentiful in a 'quick search' for 'medical marijuana', including 17k+ newspaper articles, nearly 5k magazine articles and almost 3k academic journal articles. 

3. Consider sources beyond Madison College Libraries

As a Madison College student, you have have borrowing privileges for print materials* from UW-Madison Libraries and access to Interlibrary Loan. Provided you allow yourself some lead-time, there's no reason your search for sources needs to be limited to our materials and electronic sources.

*see librarians for a courtesy card form

See links below:

Tutorial: Effective Searches, Part 1

Choice of terms matters: What are the best terms for searching?

As you work to discover good source material, you will encounter specialized language that describes your topic:

"keywords" AND "subject terms"

Image: search boxes indicating where keywords or subject terms should go

keywords: When you search using keywords, you have brainstormed a term associated with your topic, and you are hoping that there is a book, video, or article that is related to your search term. In database terms, however, the search looks for your term anywhere in the item's record.

subject terms: When you use a subject term, your search will only produce records of those items (articles, videos, or books) that have been indexed with that specific term.

For Example:

If you try a keyword search such as: va programs

Image: screenshot of words or phrase search "Va Programs"

You find a book's record that looks like this:

Book record with keywords used and subject term pointed out

However, you also get these two books on finance. Why?

Image: Book Cover for 'Decoding the New Mortgage Market"         Image: Book Cover for Real Estate Finance

Because the two terms 'VA' and 'programs' were in each record, although the terms weren't even next to one another. So in our books and AV catalog, only 3 items were found using VA programs as our search terms. By searching, instead, with the subject term 'Veterans', however, you would find well over 90 books and videos, all of which are far more relevant and helpful for your topic.

Image: Search box of subject search using the term 'veterans'

Image: Search results showing the number '93 titles'

It's important, of course, that you do some initial searching with keywords in order to discover the best subject terms for your topic.

Book a librarian!

So long as you give us a bit of notice, you can meet with a librarian, one on one, using the form below. Here are the particulars:

Booking limitations:

  • 1 appointment per week per patron.
  • Students only - no community users permitted.
  • You must book two days ahead of time. We’ve set it up so the system doesn’t accept bookings for the current or next day.
  • Patrons are able to book up to 4 weeks in advance.

Here's a link to the form:

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The 'Boolean Operators' tutorial is courtesy of Lexi Spry & UW-Madison's School of Library and Information Studies.