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Library Research Process: A Tutorial

Search and Evaluate

Create a Search Strategy

Make a Planshopping mall

When you're shopping for that shirt at the mall, you could waste a lot of time (and money)  if you didn't have some sort of strategy or plan to find exactly what you were looking for. That's the WHAT, HOW, and WHERE of a search strategy. 

  • WHAT store do I pick to shop in, and what are my criteria to describe the shirt (size, color, style)?
  • HOW do I explain to a sales associate all the criteria I want in a shirt so I find at least one that that fits?
  • WHERE do I want the sales associate to focus on looking for the shirt (clearance rack, Women's section, Men's section)?

Doing library research is just like shopping when it comes to the process of selecting WHAT, HOW, and WHERE. Think about:

  • WHAT database (article or book collection) you'll use, then what key words (terms) you're going to use to describe the item you need;
  • HOW you're going to tell the search tool (search box) to combine (AND, OR, NOT) those terms so you find at least one result with all of your terms in it;
  • WHERE you're going to tell the search tool to look for those terms inside the database's fields (subject, author, title, etc.).

Sample Plan

Basic Search Tips

Unlike Google, the search box in a library database can't understand an entire sentence. So you'll need to break your research question down into the most important ideas - the KEYWORDS. The specifics of your research question will matter when selecting sources, but for searching you only need to type in the most essential components.

Example Research Question: What is the effect of social media on the mental health of adolescents?
Keywords: social media  mental health adolescents

Most words have synonyms that mean the same, or very similar, things. For each keyword in your research question, try to come up with at least one synonym. Not all keywords will have synonyms, but many do!


Keyword: social media    Synonyms: facebook, twitter, blogging, posting


Beware! Sometimes scholars use terms that you might not be familiar with, or which might mean something very specific within the discipline. While searching, look for unfamiliar terms or words that show up a lot. Try searching for those and see if you find more relevant sources.

Most library databases have search tools built in to refine your results. Look for these tools (and more) in the margins or behind an "advanced search" link!

  1. Full Text: Make sure all of the results are available to read in full.
  2. Scholarly/Peer Reviewed: Limit your search to scholarly journal articles.
  3. Publication Date Range: Limit your search to sources published between specific years.

Refine results in database search

Advanced Search Tips

If your results list is too long, try again using the operator AND to find only sources that mention both keywords.

This search will bring back fewer results (the overlapped green area) than searching either keyword on its own.

social media AND mental health

Venn diagram social media OR facebook

If your results list is too short, try again using the OR operator to expand your search with additional keywords.

This will find sources that include either word, so you'll see more results (the entire blue area) than by searching for just one keyword.

social media OR facebook

Evaluate What You Find

You should assess what information you've found to make sure it is worth using in your research. Does it support what you are trying to say? To figure that out, try the following method:

SIFTing through CRAAP laterally

This means quickly evaluate the book/article/website/resource you've found by using the four moves below (SIFT), going through the CRAAP checklist so you know what to look for, and comparing your source to at least one other source at the same time (lateral reading). 

SIFT means these four moves:
  • Stop
  • Investigate the source
  • Find better information
  • Trace quotes and media to the original source
The CRAAP checklist looks at the following:
  • Currency: When was it published or last updated?
  • Relevance: Is it useful for your needs? Better than another source?
  • Authority: Who wrote it? Are they an expert?
  • Accuracy: Is it reliable? True? Correct? Does it cite evidence?
  • Purpose: Why does this source exist-- to inform, teach, sell, persuade...?
Lateral reading means
  • While looking through the book/article/web site you're evaluating, simultaneously open another resource side-by-side and compare the two in order to judge the credibility of that first resource. 
    • Example: comparing the information in one book to another similar book or encyclopedia
    • Example: opening a second tab on a browser and comparing the site on the first tab to the one on the second tab

Especially for digital (web-based) information: 

Web information is constantly evolving and can be extremely deceptive-- it may even pass the CRAAP test! Your fact-checking should be very careful so you don't get duped. Check out this playlist of four short videos by Mike Caulfield, which further explains the technique of lateral reading, where you "leave a site after a quick scan and open up new browser tabs in order to judge the credibility of the original site." (Wineberg & McGrew, 2017)

Read more about fact-checking here: Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers

Read more about fake news here: Fake News

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