Searching Guide

I. Introduction

What is in this Searching Guide? This Searching Guide is designed to help you establish effective searching strategies to find relevant scholarly sources for your research papers. It is a complement to the course outline and provides you with the information you need to succeed in this history course. You are responsible for understanding the material in this Searching Guide, which contains the following information:

  • An overview of search strategies, concept mapping, and search strings
  • A look at academic libraries and some of the resources available to you
  • A brief description of databases and how to find scholarly journal articles

II. Searching Tips

1. Search Strategies

Searching for relevant scholarly materials is an art, one that takes time to master. It is a complex process and differs from simple Google searching online, which is why you need to develop an effective search strategy to find relevant information in the library on any given topic.

a. Structured Searching

How do I search for information on my research topic? To find what you are looking for in the library, you need to search for materials in a structured manner. You cannot simply type a question into the search boxes of the library or any given database and expect to obtain relevant results. These are the general steps you need to take, which are iterative as you move forward in your research:

  • Step 1: Define your research topic
  • Step 2: Break down the topic into concepts
  • Step 3: Identify keywords for each concept
  • Step 4: Use Boolean operators to connect keywords
  • Step 5: Conduct searches using the library academic search tool and databases
  • Step 6: Review results, modify if necessary
b. Concept Mapping

Step 1: How do I define a research topic? While your professor may provide you with a set topic for certain assignments, in many cases you need to come up with one on your own. The best way to start is by brainstorming, which means thinking about subjects of interest to you and jotting down key concepts. To help in this process, you should do some background research with tertiary and secondary sources. After getting a sense of some of the literature on your topic, you need to make sure it is both relevant and manageable with a reasonable scope. The last thing you need to do is craft a research question, which might look like the following:

  • What were agricultural practices like among peasants in the kingdom of Castile in the twelfth century?

Step 2: How do I break down my topic into concepts? After having established a manageable topic, you need to identify its key concepts. In a nutshell, you are looking for some of the most important words in your topic statement/research question. Turning to our example on peasants, the key concepts would be:

  • Agricultural practices
  • Peasants
  • Castile

Step 3: How do I establish keywords? Once you have identified the main concepts of your topic, you need to search for keywords that are related to each concept. Keywords are synonyms and related terms you use to search for materials in the library. As you brainstorm your keywords, be mindful of the following:

  • Variant spellings. The orthography of English words varies across the British Commonwealth and the United States. For this reason, you need to be mindful of the differences between British (“colour”) and American (“color”) spelling.
  • Scientific and common names. While we may refer to certain diseases, parts of the body, processes, or even devices in a colloquial fashion, the scholarly community uses technical language. As you brainstorm your keywords, you need to think of both technical (“influenza”) and popular (“flu”) ways of referring to the same thing.
  • Plural forms and multiple endings. To obtain everything you are looking for on a subject, you need to think about singular and plural forms of words and others with multiple endings. By writing child* with an asterisk in the search box (known as truncation), you will obtain results for child together with those for child, child’s, children, children’s, and childhood.
  • Phrases. If your keywords are phrases, you should enter them in the search box with quotation marks (known as “phrase searching”). By writing “climate change” as opposed to climate change, you should obtain fewer and more relevant results.

NOTE: Truncation and phrase searching vary according to each database.  Be sure to read the About or Help sections in each database to learn how they operate.

To find keywords, you can start by doing initial searches in encyclopaedias, Wikipedia articles, handbooks, and textbooks. Remember that people think and describe things differently, which means there are many ways to search for information on the same topic. Returning to our example on peasants, here are a few related terms:

  • Agricultural practices: agriculture, farming, farms, country life, rural life
  • Peasants: serfs, farmers, labourers, workers
  • Castile: Spain, Iberian peninsula, Iberia
c. Search Strings

Step 4: How do I use Boolean operators to connect keywords? With your concepts and keywords mapped, you can now put together a search string using Boolean operators. In simple terms, Boolean operators (like AND, OR, and NOT) are commands that allow you to establish the relationship between your search terms to ensure that you obtain the results you are looking for. Here is review of when you should use Boolean operators (which are normally capitalized):

  • AND = When you want to narrow your results (requires both terms to be in the results).
  • OR = When you want to expand your results (either term can be in the results).
  • NOT = When you want to exclude certain words from your search.

Step 5: How do I search the library academic search tool and databases? There are several ways to find books, book chapters, and journal articles at the library. The first step is to go to the library homepage. Here you have the option of performing a search in Omni (or another type of academic search tool) and other library databases, usually under a heading like “research tools.”

Step 6: What do I do with my results? Your initial search should be broad, which means you most likely will obtain many irrelevant results. If you have a small amount to sift through, you can look at individual titles and abstracts and assess their usefulness for your research. However, if you have a long list of sources to filter through, you need to refine your search string. Here are a few things to consider as you look over your results:

  • Never limit yourself to the first result! You should never think that the first result is the best. Always scroll down and assess the relevance of multiple titles.
  • Review the results. Look over the results to get a sense of how well your search string worked. Click on a few of the results to read the abstracts, which will provide you with more information than the titles.
  • Apply filters. Most library academic search tools and databases allow you to reduce the number of results by applying filters such as language, publication date, and peer review (among others). For the best results, however, make sure you apply filters in the last step.
  • Try a different database. If you did not find what you were looking for, try a different database. While overlap is inevitable, you will most likely find something in subsequent databases that you did not discover in the first.
  • Construct a different search string. After viewing your results, you may need to construct a new search string or slightly modify your existing one. Whatever the case, searching is a process of trial and error, which means one search is rarely ever enough to find the information you need.

2. Searching the Library

Related to the art of searching is the ability to establish the location of the information you need. Information retrieval is central to the research process, which can be done by using Omni (or another academic search tool) on your library homepage.

a. Academic Libraries

Where is the library? Many universities have several affiliated libraries that are all searchable by using Omni (or another academic search tool) on your library homepage. Check out your campus map for more details and remember that, as a student, you can study and access the physical resources at most locations.

b. The Virtual Library

How can I access online library resources? Academic libraries also exist in the virtual environment on your institution’s library homepage. This webpage will provide you with the information you need to locate materials in the stacks and to access online collections, whether e-books or scholarly articles from e-journals. Below is a general overview of some of the most important library resources available to you for searching and finding the information you need.

  • Library search box. Tool for searching books, journal articles, and other resources available at your academic library.
  • Databases. Organized collections of journal articles that, in most cases, can be downloaded as pdf files for personal study.
  • Research guides. Online aids, typically by subject, with links to databases, reference works, standards, patents, and other valuable research materials.
c. Omni

What is Omni? Omni is a “Google-like” search engine designed specifically for the library. It allows you to search for scholarly journal articles and books together by using one quick and easy-to-use search box, which can be found on your library’s homepage. Omni is a good place to start searching for materials on your research topic, but make sure you also explore individual databases.

How do I perform a basic search using Omni? To perform a basic search for a book, book chapter, or journal article in Omni, you need to do the following:

  • Go to your library homepage.
  • Type in the title of a work, the name of an author, or the keywords of your topic in the search box and then click “Search.”
  • Once you have found a book or journal article of interest, click on the title.
    • Books: You will be given the information you need to locate the book in the physical stacks: Specific library, Call number, and Floor number.
    • E-books: Click on the sideways arrow in the square under “Availability.” You will normally have the option of downloading sections or given chapters, but not the entire book.
    • Journal Articles: Click on the sideways arrow in the square under “Availability,” which will take you to the article. You will have the option of downloading the article for personal use.

What should I do when I get lots of results in Omni? Omni searches most materials that your library owns or licenses, so on your first search you will most likely get lots of results. Don’t worry, because there are several ways to refine your search. Some of the most useful ones to consider can be found in the left sidebar under “Refine your results.”

  • Resource type. If you are only looking for books, click on “Books” under RESOURCE TYPE. You can do the same for other materials by clicking on “Show More.”
  • Peer review journals. If you are only looking for peer-reviewed journal articles, click on “Peer-Review Journals” under AVAILABILITY.
  • Publication date. If you are only looking for materials in a certain date range, change the first and last dates under PUBLICATION DATE.
  • Language. If you are looking for materials in a particular language, click on LANGUAGE and then click on the appropriate language.

What do I do if the book I need is currently on loan? Sometimes the book you need might be checked out by another user. In these cases, you need to place a hold on the book. Ask your librarians for more details.

What do I do if the book I need is in storage or at another campus library? Not all books in academic libraries are available in one physical library. Sometimes you will find that the book you need is in storage, at a remote location, or in an affiliated University College library. In these cases, you normally have the option of requesting these items. This is a great service because you can choose your preferred location for pick up.


What do I do if the library does not have what I am looking for? On occasion you will discover that your university library does not subscribe to a journal or own a book in the stacks you need. In these cases, you can request these items by using the interlibrary loan service known as RACER or by suggesting items for the library to purchase.

e. Library Help

Where can I go for help in the library? Navigating academic libraries can be overwhelming at times. If you are having trouble finding what you are looking for, there are many ways you can reach out to the library for help: email, the information desk, text/SMS, and telephone. Another helpful service is Ask: Chat with a Librarian, which puts you in contact with expert staff in real-time for quick reference service.

3. Finding Scholarly Journal Articles

To find historical sources, you need to know what you are looking for and where to look. There are many types of resources available to you, both in print at the library and online.

a. Databases

What is a database? Databases are searchable collections of information. In the context of libraries, most databases are collections of scholarly journal articles, although some include newspapers, magazines, and other documentary materials. Some are organized by subject matter while others are interdisciplinary. Most databases provide you with access to pdf files of the articles you are searching for, but others only provide access to abstracts. Since databases are curated by different companies, they do not yield the same results even if there is significant overlap. At the risk of overlooking an important study, you cannot limit yourself to only one database in your research. Rules for searching are slightly different for each database, so make sure you review their training videos or book an appointment with a librarian. Here are a few databases that are useful for history students:

  • JSTOR. A “digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources.” While interdisciplinary, JSTOR contains thousands of scholarly journal articles on a wide range of historical subjects.
  • ARTstor. A digital library of more than 700,000 images of art, architecture, and other artifacts.
  • Google Scholar. This Google product is free and allows you to find articles, books, theses, and other materials across disciplines in one search. Google Scholar obtains information from journal publishers, university presses, and websites deemed to be scholarly.
b. Scholarly Journal Articles

How do I find scholarly journal articles? There are hundreds of databases to choose from, but not all of them are relevant for your research. To find scholarly journal articles, as well as conference proceedings and review articles, you need to select the appropriate database(s). Take a look at the databases listed above in the previous section to get you started. It is also important to remember that many scholarly journal articles are still available as hard copies in the library. If you need to consult a hard copy, or if you want to see if your library subscribes to a specific scholarly journal, you can do a title search for that specific title in Omni.

Why should I use the library to find scholarly journal articles? While it is possible to find many scholarly journal articles online, you should not limit yourself to only these findings. Using library resources will save you time and money and ensure that you find the best and most relevant scholarly sources for your assignments. There are two major reasons why you should use the databases available to you through your university library:

  • Cost. Online searches may yield several scholarly journal articles, but you often need to pay to access them. Academic libraries in Ontario provide you with free access to scholarly journal articles through Omni and their databases.
  • Scholarship. Online searches do not distinguish between scholarly and non-scholarly sources. Even search engines like Google Scholar yield a combination of the two. The databases available through your university library allow you to filter your searches to only scholarly sources.
  • Time. Databases available through your university library have been curated by librarians and other information professionals, which means they have weeded out non-scholarly materials. This is not the case with Google and other internet search engines, so turning to the library saves you time in your research.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: