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Search Library Resources: sub-module 4 of 5 of how to research

Before searching library resources, double check your assignment to identify which types of information your instructor would like you to use. Some of your projects will leave this choice up to you, while others will require specific types of information. Types of information may include: books/ebooks, journal articles, magazine articles, journal articles, grey literature, and more.



  • Decide which type of library resources you need.Identify the types of information you are required to use in your assignment. This helps you figure out the library resource that makes sense for your research.
  • Plan your time.The searching stage of your assignment can often take a long time as you decide what sources you need, where to find them, and identify keywords/synonyms/related terms to do multiple searches. Putting in the time at this stage will reward you with relevant results that will make writing your assignment much easier.
  • Figure out library searching shortcuts.Many library resources include features like the ability to email yourself articles, cite them, and link you to more articles of the same type. Using library resources can help save you time and find quality information.
  • Find credible resources.Library resources are most often more credible than unfiltered online information from the web. Library resources can save you time by quickly passing the CRAAP test Opens in new window. What is the CRAPP test Opens in new window? A test that evaluates the quality of information against 5 important criteria.

Library Search Tools Explained

What is a Discovery Layer?

A discovery layer is a multidisciplinary search tool. Discovery layers are like search engines (think: Google) for library content. Using your library's discovery layer, you will be able to find:

  1. subscription articles in databases 
  2. e-content (ebooks, eaudiobooks, streaming media)
  3. open access content
  4. physical library resources (e.g. books, DVDs, magazines) .

Because they search through subscription database content, discovery layers can only be used by the college community (students, faculty, staff).  Not all of your college library’s database content can be found through its discovery layer, regardless, it is a good place to start your research.

What is a Database?

Databases are searchable collections of resources on a variety of subjects. Databases are subscription-based and are paid for by college libraries so that students can access the information.

Libraries buy database subscriptions from vendors, like Ebsco, ProQuest, Gale, to name a few. You can think of vendors like cable company providers: Bell, Rogers, Shaw - and their content packages. Same principle.

Content found in databases can include: newspaper articles, journal articles, encyclopedia articles, streaming media, and more. When professors ask you to find scholarly, or peer reviewed academic articles, you can search for them in databases.

Discovery layers and individual databases have filters (sometimes called “limits”) that help you refine your search so that you retrieve results that are more accurate and relevant to what you are looking for.

The three most commonly used filters are:

  • Available Online/In Your Library/Full Text. Regardless of the wording, this filter ensures that you are finding sources that you are able to view in its entirety.
  • Peer Reviewed. This ensures that all results are from peer reviewed journals.
  • Date Range/Publication Date. This filter limits your search to material published within a particular time frame.

Search Resources within Your College Library

There are many resources available to you at your local College library. Check what is available to you by selecting your College from the drop down menu.

Searching Language

About Search Language

You may think that you don’t need to learn how to search a library database, because you’ve had good luck searching Google (or another web search engine) to find information. But searching a library database is different from searching for information using Google.

In Google, you can type a question in the same way you might ask it in a conversation, for example: What are the health benefits of regular exercise? This is called searching using natural language.

In a library database, however, you should search using keywords, and not natural language; statements or questions. Keywords are usually nouns, e.g. people, places or things. Don’t include words like why, what, where, when, if, the, etc. in your database search.

The Choose a Topic module - opens in a new window features helpful information on selecting keywords, and brainstorming synonyms. 

Before searching a library database, identify all the keywords in your topic, or research question. For the question above, you could start your search with the keywords health benefits exercise.

What Are Boolean Operators?

Boolean Operators (Operators), including AND, OR, and NOT, are words that make it easy for you to customize the results of your search.

When searching for information in a library database or a search engine, you may want to combine some keywords, or exclude certain words, to ensure that your search results are more focused or relevant to your topic.

TIP: In library databases, you don’t need to capitalize proper nouns (e.g. Twitter, Trudeau or Ontario), but Operators must be typed in all capital letters, e.g. NOT, AND, OR.

Using the AND operator tells the database that all words, or terms, that you have connected with AND must be found in any results returned.

If, for example, you are searching for articles about marketing with Twitter, you could search for: marketing AND Twitter. If either word (marketing or Twitter) is not found in an article, it will not appear in your results.

The Operator NOT will narrow your search results by excluding or removing a specific word or words from the search results.

For example, if you’re researching marketing but are not interested in articles about marketing using Twitter, you could search for: marketing NOT Twitter.

Your results from this search will not include any articles that contain the word Twitter.

For a broader search, to find articles that discuss marketing with Facebook or Twitter, you could use the Operator OR, e.g. marketing AND (Facebook OR Twitter). The results from this search will include articles that talk about marketing and Facebook, or marketing and Twitter, or marketing and Facebook and Twitter.

In the above example, you'll see that brackets are included in the search. When you are using more than one Operator in a search (e.g. AND and OR, or NOT and OR), you will need to group your keywords and operator words using brackets, so that the database knows which action to perform first.

How do I Search for a Phrase?

Sometimes you might want to search for a phrase, where the words always appear together and in a specific order. Watch the video and read the information below to learn more about how to search for phrases.

When searching for an exact phrase, (i.e. exactly the same words in the same exact order), most library databases support the use of "quotation marks" (“ ”) around the phrase, which could be two or more words.

Quotation marks instruct the database to return results that include that exact phrase. Searching for an exact phrase can help to reduce the number of irrelevant results.

For example, if you search for articles about body language (without quotation marks), your results will include both words, but body might be on the first page of the article, and language on the last.

Searching for “body language” will only return results that include that exact phrase. Using quotation marks to search for an exact phrase will narrow down your results and make them more relevant. Exact phrase searching with quotation marks will also work in Google.

There are, however, a few databases that do not recognize or support exact phrase searching using quotation marks. If you get no results, or too few, remove the quotation marks from around your phrase and search again.

What Are Wildcards?

A wildcard is a special character that replaces one or more letters in a word. Common wildcard symbol used in different databases include:

  • the question mark (?)
  • the pound sign (#)
  • the dollar sign ($)
  • the percentage symbol (%)
  • the exclamation mark (!)

When keyword searching you may want to search for all variations of that word. You may miss relevant and useful results if the term you have searched for does not appear in that exact form in an article or book. Wildcard symbols can help you to find word variations.

If you want or need to use a wildcard in your search, check the help section in the database you’re using to find the wildcard options. Wildcard examples include:

  • globali?ation (the $ sign could be replacing an ‘s’ or a ‘z’)
  • colo#r (the # could replace one extra letter, and search results will include color or colour)

What is Truncation?

To ‘truncate’ a word simply means to shorten it by removing one or more letters to go back to the root word.

Let’s imagine we are searching for articles about house prices in Canada. If we search for those keywords only, house prices Canada, we may miss articles that include the words houses, housing, price, pricing, Canada’s or Canadians. If we truncate each word, we will get more results.

So, to search house prices in Canada, we could truncate all keywords and search for: hous* pric* Canad*.

You do need to be careful using when using truncation. Truncating too many letters from a word can lead to unexpected results. For example, searching for nursing in Canada using the truncated word nurs* will also bring back results about nurseries, and truncating Canada to Can* may retrieve articles with words like cantaloupe, cancer, canned, etc.