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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

For books and published articles:

Just because it's in writing doesn't mean it's worth using to support your work. Check the books and articles you find against the CRAAP Test:

  • 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...?

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 explains a technique called 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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