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HIST 4000 - HIST 4001 History Honors (Fall 2018): Interpreting Search Results

A guide to library research for history honors thesis research

Full Text vs Not Full Text

When to Search Full Text Resources

Secondary Sources
Full text means ebooks, pdfs, etc. available online. It is the opposite of a citation or reference in which the item is not immediately available online and the book, article, document is described only superficially-- title, author, publication details, subject words or descriptors, possibly an abstract (summary).

Searching full text secondary sources (through JStor, Google Books, etc) should be last resort in your search process, not for your first step. Generally you get too many hits to evaluate.

Better searching generally means searching citations in databases which will give you better and more manageable number of hits that you can evaluate.

Never hesitate to Ask a Librarian for advice.

Primary Sources
Full text digital collections (described under the Primary Sources tab) are an exception to this strategy. They can be searched as a first step or a last step or in between. But remember, you might need to translate modern terms into period terms, for example, women not gender.

Subject vs Keyword

What's the difference between keywords and subject terms?

subject terms = less hits & better
An item is described using subject terms when a human employee evaluates the book or article and describes it using a set of provided subject words. This human intervention means subject words are valuable and powerful. Not all words are subject terms.  Each catalog/database/resource has its own set of subject terms, although they often share similarities. Once you discover the relevant subject terms in the library catalog, those terms will often translate to other databases.

keywords = more hits & sometimes worse
A keyword is loose. It means the word appears anywhere--title, author, notes, description, publisher, etc., or in the full text when that is available.

Interpreting Search Results

Tips on Interpreting Search Results

Once you have search results from a library catalog or database, how do you decide what would be useful to you?

Good searching is not a matter of typing a word or two in a search box and getting 100,000 hits. A good search result is generally between 20-100 relevant items.

What to do when you get too many results

  • Use more focused, narrower, terms
  • Add one or more search terms
  • Use facets (options that generally appear in the left margin) to exclude irrelevant types of materials or impractical formats or languages you can't read
  • Use dates to exclude older material (Generally, the more recent a secondary source is, the more useful.)
  • Using keyword or full text searching produces lots of results. Instead of searching by keyword or full text, designate a search term as a subject (sometimes called descriptors) using the pull down menus. (Each catalog/database has its own set of subject words, but typically a subject in a library catalog is also a subject in an article database).
  • Get help from Ask a Librarian

What to do when you don't get enough results

  • Use different search terms (Brainstorm synonyms. Look at how items are described in the catalog/databases for related items.)
  • Search by keyword or in the full text
  • Search full text databases--JStor, Google Books
  • Get help from Ask a Librarian

What to do when you're not getting the right kind of results


Don't forget to look at footnotes and bibliographies of relevant articles and books, including material that was assigned in class.

Consult with your professor. They will think more highly of you for seeking their advice, as early as possible.

Get advice from Ask a Librarian--Drop by a library reference desk, set up an appointment with a librarian (a research consultation), or ask a librarian via chat or email.

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