Skip to Main Content

History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

Search Strategies

Whether you are searching our catalog, a database, or even Google, here are some tips on how you can increase the quality of your search results by building a stronger query.


Catalog vs. Database

Before you begin conducting a search in a catalog or database, it is important to understand what kind of information you will be searching and retrieving from the catalog or database. In fact, when you hear the terms 'catalog' and 'database' you may wonder exactly what they mean and whether there is a difference between them.


A 'catalog' is actually a sppecific type of database. It contains descriptive information about the holdings of a library. BobCat, the catalog for The New School Library is a shared catalog containing the holdings of The New School Library, NYU, Cooper Union, New York Historical Society, Brooklyn Historical Society and the New York School of Interior Design. If you search BobCat, you will be able to find which books, videos, journals, etc. each library owns. The descriptive information will tell you basic information about the item, such as the year it was created and who made it. Some records may contain more information such as the table of contents. Most importantly, the records will tell you which library or libraries have the item and where they can be found. The catalog will tell you if we subscribe to a journal but it DOES NOT search the contents of a journal. To search the contents of a journal you must turn to a database.


A 'database' is broader term than catalog. Databases also provide descriptive information about library owned or subscribed to materials. Unlike the catalog, however, a database will search its contents to provide results for specific articles in the database or journal. In some cases, the databases provide direct access to digital content such as online versions of journals or digitized images. There are many databases available some of which have similar or overlapping content. The New School databases ONLY describe material available to The New School. Conducting a search of a database at The New School will provide the same list of results, but may return different access to the material than conducting the same search in the same database at NYU.


For more information on finding items through the catalog and databases, please click on the 'Books' and 'Articles/Databases' tabs at the top of this guide.



Search Strageties

Knowing the contents of a catalog or database is an essential first step to retrieving quality search results. Searching a database is also about finding 'good' results. It's about hitting the sweet spot where your results are not so numerous that they are overwhelming but are as many relevant results as the database can provide. Here are several techniques you can use to maximize the quantity of your results while narrowing your results to only the most useful. 


Advanced Search

Almost every catalog, database, or search engine (including Google!) has an 'advanced search' option. Before you begin entering search terms, you should find and switch to the advanced search. Sometimes a database may default to advanced search but in most cases you will have to find the option and click on it. By going to the advanced search, you are instantly revealing many of the indexed fields, filters, limiters, and options available to the researcher. You may find that you can narrow your search terms to author, title, or subject, or that you can set date ranges for your search. In Google the advanced search can even limit your results to more academic pages by filtering to only pages the '.edu' or '.gov' domain. Take advantage of the features provided by an advanced search and you can be sure you are employing the full power of the database.


Boolean Operators

Boolean operators are words you can include in a search to control how the search engine interprets your relations between your terms. The most common boolean operators are AND, OR, and NOT. To use these terms you must type them in capital letters. Below are some examples of how boolean operators can be used Venn diagrams explaining how their use would affect the results a search of Newton and gravity.

Newton AND Gravity - As you can see below, using AND will restrict your search to ONLY results with contain both the term Newton and the term gravity. This is useful if you are trying to narrow your results with a more specific focus.


Newton OR Gravity - This search will return results with contain either the term Newton or the term gravity. Using OR will expand your result and may be useful if you are unsure which terms are most commonly used, for example if I am unsure whether biology papers will more commonly use the term fruit fly or drosophila


Newton NOT gravity - In this case, our search returns results containing the term Newton but excludes ALL results containing the term gravity. Like AND, using NOT will produce narrower, more specific results. Sometimes a term is dominated by a particular concept and the NOT operator can be useful in dissassociating those terms. For example if I am searching for articles on Apache, the webserver, but I am getting overwhelmed with results for Apache helicopters, I might search for Apache NOT helicopter.

Many databases (including the BobCat catalog) include default AND operators between each term although you don't see them in your query. Other databases may default to OR. You can add these terms to a search to test which which operators are default.

Advanced researchers can even combine boolean operators using parentheses in much the same way that the order of operations in math tell you which combinations to prioritize. However you use them, boolean operators can add an additional level of control to your search.


Special Characters

Somce characters have special meanings for search engines. The most common at the asterisk (*) and quotation marks (").

An asterisk can be used as a wildcard or to indicate truncation. If you put an asterisk at the end of a term, your search will include all terms that begin with your search term but have additional characters. For example, a search for environment* would return result what include environment, envitonmental, and environmenally. You could also use this at the beginning of a term or in the middle of a term. The wildcard allows you to expand your search and will return additional results.

Quotation marks can be used to indicate an exact phrase. If you were searching for articles on Steve Jobs, for example, the use of quotation marks would limit your search to only results in which the terms Steve and Jobs appear together rather than a search for all articles containing the two terms regardless of their arrangement.


Finally, don't be afraid to combine techniques in your search string. A search for "hydrogen bond*" AND solubility might provide very specific results about the effect of hydrogen bonding on solubility.


Limiters and Filters

Some databases allow additional options to help you build a stronger search. We generally refer to these as limiters or filters. Before or after conducting your search, you may be able to further limit your search by check boxes or drop down menus. In BobCat, the filters can be found on the left side of a search results page and include filters for holding-library, subjects, call number, author names, and many others.



Occasionally, a database may rely on specific vocabulary and may provide a thesaurus so that you can identify to term they are using in their records. The Library of Congress maintains a thesaurus of Subject Headings and Names for its catalog and The National Library of Medicine maintains a thesaurus of Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) for its database (PubMed) which provide a way for record creaters and record searchers to talk the same language. If used, the thesaurs will point a researcher to the exact terms indexed by the database. The majority of databases do not employ a thesaurus but rather rely on keywords.


Ultimately, let your results guide you. Database searching is a trial and error process in which you start with a search, analyze the results, modify your search, and hopefully get better results. By using the techniques above, you should be able to modify your search with precision and build a stronger query.