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6.5: Topic Searching

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    So far we have covered two of the three parts to creating a search: the words you want to use (See 6A) and how to combine them (See 6B). The third step or third way to create a search is to decide on what field to search. These three components of a search apply to both known item searches and topic searches.

    When you are searching for information on a topic, (when you don’t have a title, author, or complete citation), the best initial strategy is to search in many fields at the same time, such as the title, subject, contents, abstract and other fields. That is called multi-field searching. Each database searches different fields in their multi-field searches. The help screens often will tell you which fields are being searched. Additionally, each database may label this broad multi-field search differently. It may be called keyword, keyword anywhere, any field or all fields. As of the writing of this, in EBSCO’s Academic Search Complete, for example, the multi-field search occurs when you use the default search which is labeled select a field. Remember that these broad searches rarely search every field, but do search several fields at once.

    When you are searching for a topic do not start by using subject field searching. The words in your topic are not necessarily the subject terms used in a database. Subject words are unique to each database. For example one database may use the subject capital punishment for all resources on that topic, while another database might use death penalty. While you might get a few results if you choose the wrong one, you will miss the bulk of the information on your topic. Instead, start with broad searches that search multiple fields.

    In the cropped screen shots at the end of section 6E are examples from two databases: San Diego City College Library’s catalog and EBSCO’s Academic Search Complete. There are thousands of databases out there so these two are as good as any for our discussion. Notice the different ways these databases present the capability of choosing which fields to search. The catalog presents you with boxes to type in, while EBSCO offers a drop down menu so you can change the names of the boxes.

    Don’t assume by the name of the field what a specific field search searches. In EBSCO’s Academic Search Complete, for example, there is a field in the drop down menu labeled people. If you choose that field and put in the word adult*, you may get some hits, but not a lot. This may make you think that there is not much on your topic regarding adult(s). If you type in British or Canadian, you do get some results, but, again, not everything about the British on your topic. A people field search seems to work best if you put in the name of a well-known person. Try Gates. Notice that you will get both Bill and Henry Louis Gates so you would need to further narrow your search to get the Gates in which you are interested. If your results do not make sense (e.g. there are only a few articles about adults), there is probably something off in your search. The point is that these databases are not perfect pieces of technology, therefore, you want to try several different searches to be sure you are getting the best information.

    When there are too many results by using a multi-field search, change the fields you are searching and try your terms in the title or abstract field if the database allows you to search those fields. (“Abstract” is an academic word for summary.) On the other hand, if there are not enough results, put one of your terms in the full text field which searches the full text of the resources. Think it through. If a word shows up in the title, there is a very good chance the article will be primarily on that word. Alternatively, if you are having a difficult time finding information (and you have already checked your spelling and tried truncation), try your word in the full-text field to see what you find. Mix them up. Experiment. Persist until you find the answers to your questions.Once you retrieve some good books, articles or whatever from broad searches, read the titles, abstracts (summaries) and “controlled vocabulary” looking for more terms to use in your searches. Enter them into your grid.

    Controlled vocabulary (subjects, descriptors, subject headings…) is a librarian term to describe the words a database uses as the topics of articles and books on the same topic: not unlike tagging in social media. Using controlled vocabulary terms to search in the controlled vocabulary field will produce fewer results than broad searches in other fields, but they will usually be more relevant.

    Remember that you will use more than one database to do research. Controlled vocabulary fields are called different things in different databases such as descriptors, subjects, subject headings or controlled vocabulary. Controlled vocabulary terms can be different in different databases. For example, articles on the same topic in one database might be “tagged” with the term pesticide and in another database tagged with the term insecticide. These terms would be found in their respective controlled vocabulary fields which could be called subjects, subject headings, descriptors and so on. Controlled vocabulary terms are good sources for more terms to use to create more searches.



    Read through the record to determine the database’s controlled vocabulary terms for your topic. Once you have identified them, a controlled vocabulary search can be very useful. Add these new terms to your grid. Use them initially in broad searches in new databases since they may not be the terms used in the controlled vocabulary of that newly searched database.

    Remember what you are learning here will transfer to most any database in most any institution. What you want to take from this is that most databases will allow you to choose the fields to search so look for that capability in the database. Use the terms you find in records to create more searches.

    This page titled 6.5: Topic Searching is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Carol M. Withers with Bruce Johnson & Nathan Martin.

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