Spiva Library

Search Strategies

This page discusses five basic steps one should take when researching a topic in George A. Spiva Library.

  1. Identify keywords and/or Subject Headings that describe the topic.
  2. Search SWAN to locate books and other materials.
  3. Search article databases to find periodical (journal/magazine/newspaper) articles.
  4. Evaluate the materials found.
  5. Cite all sources. (See Citing Sources page.)

1. Identify keywords and/or Subject Headings that describe the topic.

Keywords and phrases are less exact than subject headings. There are many different words that could possibly be used to describe a concept. 

Example: Children, kids, youngsters, juveniles, adolescents, teenagers, boys and girls, and youth are words that could all be used to find items about young people. 

Subject Headings are “official” headings, provided by the Library of Congress, used to describe a concept. SWAN entries have linkable subject headings listed for easier location of materials on your topic. SWAN can be searched by Library of Congress Subject Headings as well as Title, Author, Keyword. In addition, located on bookstands at the end of the Reference stacks are print volumes of the Library of Congress Subject Headings. 

Example: The subject heading “Cats” refers only to domestic cats, whereas the subject heading “Felidae” will refer to items about panthers, lunx, and cheetahs. The subject headings “Mars (planet)” and “Mars (Roman deity)” refer to two very different subjects. 

a. Refer to a course textbook. A broad overview of a subject is often valuable in clarifying ideas and research questions. 

b. Reference Resources. A specialized encyclopedia, dictionary, or handbook is often a good place to start researching a topic. These background sources can provide an overview of a topic and references to books or articles on the subject.

To locate a background source for your topic look in SWAN by doing a subject search for “encyclopedias” or “dictionaries” or ask for assistance at the Reference desk. Examples include Encyclopedia of the Cold War and Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery.

c. Utilize bibliographies. Note any useful sources such as books, journals, newspaper articles, etc., that are listed in the bibliography at the end of encyclopedia articles, dictionary entries, textbook chapters, and relevant articles. The sources cited in the bibliography may provide good leads for further research.

2. Search SWAN to locate books and other materials.

It is often helpful to begin with a keyword search using terms identified in Step 1. Then follow Subject Heading links found in entries that are of interest. 

NOTE: Clicking one of the subject headings leads to more items that share the same subject.

Write down both the location and call number. These are needed to find an item in the library.

3. Search article databases to find periodical (journal/magazine/newspaper) articles.

Periodicals are continuous publications such as newspapers, magazines, or scholarly journals. They are usually issued on a regular basis, that is, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Search SWAN to find the call numbers and holdings of periodicals which Spiva Library carries. Use article databases - Academic Search Premier, Lexis-Nexis, CINAHL, etc.)to identify articles contained in the journals.  

Databases contain information about articles found in periodicals. Search for articles about the topic by keyword, subject, author, or title. The results of a search will show citation (the titles of articles, the author, the periodical where the article is found) and other information needed to locate the original article.

Many databases contain abstracts (summaries of articles). Some electronic databases contain the full text of the article that can be emailed, saved, or printed. 

a. Choose a database. An alphabetical list of article databases with brief descriptions is available. 

b. Perform a search. Search for articles about the topic by keyword, subject, author, or title. 

c. Note the citation, or source information, of relevant articles. The citation is needed for two reasons: to locate the specific article and to write the bibliography.  Record the complete information from the title, author, and source lines. Not all citations will have an author. If the article is full text, you may print, email or save it.  IF the record is not full text, a search must be done with the citation information to determine who may own it.

d. Determine whether the library owns the periodical. If the article is not linked to full text within a database, use the article linker to perform a search for the full text availability of the article elsewhere (SWAN, another database or freely online).  If the full text is not available through anything own  by Spiva, a copy of the article may be requested through Interlibrary Loan.

4. Evaluate the materials found.

Not all materials found will provide appropriate or useful information. Many leads can be eliminated before actually locating the item. The following are questions to keep in mind when deciding if items found are of use for your topic.

a. Author/organization

What are the author’s credentials or affiliations?

Was he/she mentioned by a professor, in a class text, or cited frequently in class readings?

Is the organization reputable?

Is the organization or author known to be biased? 

b. Publication date or edition

Is a recent publication date of consequence to the research topic in question?

Is there a newer edition that may have more up-to-date information?

c. Periodical type 

 Is this type of publication appropriate for this research topic?

Scholarly journals: Articles found in scholarly journals are written by researchers or those who have done research in a specific field. Articles are often “peer reviewed,” that is, they are judged by experts in the field to be worthy of publication. These journals are often published by professional organizations or are associated with academic institutions, e.g., Chronicle of Higher Education or JAMA : the Journal of the American Medical Association. Articles often include footnotes and bibliographies.

Popular/General Interest journals or magazines: Because of their commercial nature, these tend to have a glossier format than scholarly journals. Articles in periodicals such as Scientific American or the Wall Street Journal may require some degree of academic knowledge or background. Others such as Rolling Stone Magazine, People, and Glamour contain articles at a reading level accessible to the general audience and provide general information. Sources of information are less likely to be cited in footnotes and bibliographies. These publications are less likely to be carried by an academic institution. 

d. Bibliographies/Citations

Are the sources of information cited?

Does the bibliography lead to other relevant materials for this topic?

e. Objectivity

Is the organization or author clearly biased?

Does the author attempt to present a variety of viewpoints?

Is there an attempt to distinguish fact from opinion?

f. Supporting evidence

Are the facts supported by research?

Does the author offer ample evidence to support opinions?

        g. Relevance

 Does this article update, support, or add new information to the materials in hand so far?


5. Cite all sources.

Citation formats may vary. The most common formats are the MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, or Turabian style. Ask the professor for the preferred choice.

For basic information about the differing style formats, see the Citing Sources page.