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How to Search

How do I use search techniques?

This section will help you to create an effective search strategy and perform basic searches in Library Search using keywords.

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Break down an assignment brief into appropriate keywords.
  • Think about alternative search terms in order to create a comprehensive search.
  • Use boolean operators AND/OR and NOT to create an effective search strategy.
  • Effectively use Library Search to find books/e-books and journal articles.
  • Use filters to refine your search.

Identifying keywords

When searching for information, it's crucial to acknowledge that databases do not recognise full sentences. Hence, utilising keywords in our search becomes vital. Now, let's examine the question below and identify its keywords.

"What are the potential barriers young people may face when accessing health and social care services?"

First step - identify the keywords?

  • Barriers – (this might need unpicking further, consider barriers such as language, culture, gender, age)
  • Young people
  • Health care services
  • Social care services

Alternative keywords

It is unlikely that everyone who writes about your topic uses the same words to describe it and sometimes the same words can be used for different topics. Information services often use a controlled vocabulary to describe the contents of articles and books.

  • Look at catalogue and database results for Subject headings, keywords or Descriptors

  • In databases look for the Thesaurus, this contains the complete controlled vocabulary is often searchable.
  • Some databases and information services will display a list of the subjects or keywords most frequently found in your search results. Usually this is done automatically if it is available. These can often be used to refine your search result

Barriers – obstacles, challenges ( Consider barriers such as language, gender, age, culture)

Young People – adolescents, youth, teenagers…

Health services – health care, doctor*, nurs*, NHS, National Health Service…

Social care – social work*, social services

Boolean search

Some words can be treated as instructions that tell the information service how to search. This is called Boolean searching after George Boole who set out the logical rules that govern their use. Check the help pages or experiment to see what works. For most services the following are useful, but not all databases have full Boolean searching.

Graphic of cats showing how boolean search terms work.

Boolean - AND

Finds only items that contain all the words linked by AND.

Graphic of cats showing how boolean search terms work for AND.

Boolean - OR

Finds any item that contains one of the words or phrases linked by OR.

Graphic of cats showing how boolean search terms work for OR.

Boolean - Not

Excludes unwanted items that you do NOT want to appear in the results.

Graphic of cats showing how boolean search terms work for NOT.

Phrase searching

Most databases or search engines will treat each word as a separate words and automatically put an AND between them. If you want to find a phrase you need to put it in speech marks (quotation marks). For example "young people" will find fewer results than young people. It is up to you to decide which search best meets your needs.

Graphic showing how search terms work for Phrase.Some databases may allow you to choose how your search terms are handled by offering a drop down menu of search options.


Truncation is a technique used to expand a search term to include various word endings or variations. By adding a symbol, often an asterisk (*), at the end of a root word, truncation allows for retrieving multiple forms and variations of the word.

Graphic showing how search terms work for Truncation.

Use Truncation to expand your search

  • Skil* finds Skill, Skills, Skilful, Skilfully  
  • Some services using different wildcards (such as ? !) but the * is the most common

Truncation is particularly useful when there are different word endings or variations that could be relevant to the search. It saves time by retrieving a broader range of results in a single search rather than conducting separate searches for each possible variation.

However, it's important to note that truncation should be used with caution. Sometimes, truncating a word can also retrieve unrelated or irrelevant terms. It's essential to review and evaluate the retrieved results to ensure they align with the intended search and information needs.

Interactive Activity

Click the image below to access an interactive activity on search techniques. There are some multiple-choice questions at different points during the activity to help reinforce your learning.

Click this image to open a page with an interactive activity.


  • To produce good academic assignments, you need to refer to high-quality academic sources that support the arguments you are making. The sources you use provide the evidence base for an assignment.
  • The first aspect of making sure you have good sources is to search effectively and in the right places. This section has looked at how you can develop good literature searching skills.
  • The Library Services subscribes to many different search engines, or databases, ranging from multi-disciplinary to subject specific databases. You can start searching for relevant information on Library Search before moving on to other search engines.

Adsetts Library
Collegiate Library

Sheffield Hallam University
City Campus, Howard Street
Sheffield S1 1WB