Skip to Main Content

How Do I: Develop a Search Query

How to get started using The Evergreen State College Library.

Advanced Search Strategies (video)

Advanced Search Strategies (text)

For college-level research, you will need to use search engines and library databases to find the information you need. 

Search engines like Google provide free access to many online sources, such as news articles, government information, and open access scholarly publications. Some sources that show up in Google, however, exist behind a paywall and are not accessible for free.  

Library databases provide access to information that is not always freely available online, such as academic journal articles, paywalled newspaper articles, ebooks, streaming videos, and images. 

Google and library databases are both search engines, but they speak different languages. 

  • When you search in Google, you can use complete sentences, like "How do I register to vote?" 
  • Library databases typically respond best to combinations of keywords, which point to the main concepts of a research topic.  

Example: Let’s say we’re interested in the use of artificial intelligence to prevent ship strikes from injuring or killing whales in the ocean. The main concepts of this research question are “artificial intelligence” and “ship strikes” and “whales”.  

We could go ahead and search a library database with these terms alone, but authors use a variety of terms in their writing, and we might miss some important sources that use synonyms instead of our exact terms.  

What are some other words that we could use to describe the important elements of our question? For each concept, we can think about words that will lead to broader or narrower search results.  

For artificial intelligence, we might add: 

  • Artificial intelligence: AI, technology, computing, machine learning, algorithm 

  • Ship strikes: collision, vessel strikes, vessel disturbance 

  • Whales: marine mammals, or more specific types of whales such as “humpback whales”, “gray whales”, orcas, “killer whales” 

Now that we have more terms to work with, let’s consider how we’ll connect the terms

In a library database, connectors like AND, OR, and NOT establish relationships between keywords. 

  • Use AND to narrow your results. Your results will include both terms somewhere in the text. 
  • Use OR to broaden your results.  Your results could include either term somewhere in the full text. 
  • Use NOT to narrow your results by excluding certain terms from your results. 

You can also use special punctuation in a library database. 

  • Use quotation marks around a phrase like "vessel strike" to search for these words together as a phrase rather than as individual words.  
  • Truncation: Use an asterisk (*) following the root of a word to expand a search by including all terms with that prefix or root. For example, comput* would include computing, computers, computational, and so on. 

Let's practice in the Library Catalog. Start at the Library homepage

I’m most interested in scholarly journal articles, so I’ll set my scope to “Articles and more” in the Library Catalog.  

If I search for "artificial intelligence” AND "ship strike” AND whale, how broad or narrow will my results be? 

Oops, we didn’t get any results! This search is too narrow, so let’s use connectors and additional terms to broaden the search. Connect synonyms with OR so that the search results will include at least one of the terms from each search box. Let's try this search query:

  • (comput* OR technolog*) AND (ship strike) AND (whale OR marine) 

We got some results, and they seem to be relevant to our topic!

  • Results that use our keywords in the title and throughout the text will surface to the top of the list. 
  • You can further refine your search by limiting your results to scholarly, peer-reviewed sources that are published in academic journals.   
  • Another option is to limit your results to full text online so that you will only see articles to which you’ll have immediate, full access. 

You can also replicate these search strategies in a specific database, such as Environment Complete or Science Direct. For more info, check out our video on Choosing a Library Database

Research is a process of trial and error. Experiment with different combinations of keywords and connectors to see what works best for your topic. 

If you're not sure what to try next, stop by the Research Desk or make an appointment with a librarian, and we’ll be glad to work with you. 

Daniel J. Evans Library - MS: LIB2300 - 2700 Evergreen Parkway, NE. Olympia, WA 98501 - 360-867-6250