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MEDVL 1101: Medieval British Archaeology (Spring 2022): Interpreting Search Results

A guide to library research

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When to Search Full Text Resources

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 or summary. Searching full text (through JSTOR, Google Books, etc) should be your last resort, 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.

What's the difference between keywords and subject words?

subject words = less hits & better
A human has read the book or article and described it using a set of subject words. Not all words ore subject words.  Each catalog/database/resource has its own, although they often are very similar. The subject words used in the library catalog for your topic will often translate to other databases.

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

Tips on Optimizing 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.

When you get too many results:

  • Use more narrow 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

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

When you're not getting the right kind of results:

  • Make sure you understand the context of your topic; you may be thinking too narrowly.
  • Consult background sources for context, associated terms, and bibliography.
  • Critically analyzing Information Sources
  • Distinguishing Scholarly from Non-Scholarly Periodicals
  • The titles of scholarly articles can be offputting. Use abstracts (summaries) to help you decide.
  • Get help from Ask a Librarian

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.