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History Research Guide

Find primary sources, books, scholarly articles and other secondary sources in the field of History.

Search Strategy Tutorials

These quick tutorials can help you learn to search more effectively.

Boolean Searching

Boolean searching involves connecting terms and concepts using the words "and", "or" and "not" in order to narrow or expand your search. If you use a phrase such as children with cancer, a database will most often look for that as a phrase and thus reduce the number of items significantly because it has to find those 3 words in a row. Therefore, you would want to use children and cancer instead because the database will look for those words anywhere in the record.

Boolean Operator Example Reason to Use
AND women AND military To find items that have both terms and to DECREASE the number of items found.
OR university OR college Use for synonyms and to INCREASE the number of items found.
NOT windows NOT Microsoft To eliminate terms and concepts and to DECREASE the number of items found.

Search Strategies

When you search in library catalogs or databases for sources about your topic, keyword searching usually works fine, but may yield many off-topic hits. Instead of keyword, try subject searching, experimenting with various terms for your topic. Some of my favorite tips for doing good searches include…

  • EXPERIMENT: Go into Advanced Search and put a term for your topic, such as "nuclear power," into the subject box; then create another subject box to add a second term of "history" or other terms that make sense for your interest. Most databases will allow you to check various boxes to manipulate your search terms (dates of publication, types of sources, whether or not there are illustrations, etc.).


  • IDENTIFY ALTERNATIVE TERMS: If your topic is known by a common popular term, such as "fracking," try that term first as a subject and see if the catalog leads you to the formal term of "hydraulic fracturing." This is known as cross-referencing. If nothing comes up for your term, search a basic database such as Academic Search Complete or look around in Google or even Wikipedia to see if you can find some alternative terms to use.


  • BROWSE THE SUBJECT INDEX: In the MSU catalog, type in your term but before you hit enter, click on the Begins With radio button and then click the Subject button below the dialog box. This will take you into the index of subject headings where your term appears. Explore that index to see if there's a better term to use for your topic. Many databases also include ways to browse the subject index for terms that are relevant to your search. In Academic Search Complete you can access this list by clicking on the Subject Terms link at the top of the page in the blue ribbon and then searching or browsing that list. Other databases will have similar lists of subject terms for you to browse.


  • FIND LIKE ITEMS: Whenever you find a book in the catalog or an article in a database that's a good match for your topic, use its record to find more like it. To do this in the library catalog, click on the Catalog Record tab in the full record for the book you've found; then scroll down to the subject term fields. There you'll find other terms that describe your topic and that you can click on or use in the basic search box to find more on-topic items. In Academic Search Complete and other databases, you can generally click on the subject term from the item’s full record to pull up a list of all of the items in the database that have been labeled with that subject term.

These tips are all equally important for searching other types of databases, or even just doing a Google search. These are some of the key strategies that will make your searching better and not just basic.

History Terms, Vocabulary, Background Information