3 Expert Tips on How to Search a University Library Database

An education library technician weighs in on how to get the most out of your educational administration reference search

Are you endlessly confused by the rules of conducting a university library search? If you’re working on an educational administration research paper but you’re not quite sure how to find the right books and articles on your topic, you’re not alone!

Many researchers (myself included) feel like they are guessing when it comes to searching through a university library database. University libraries have hundreds of thousands of resources, so it can feel overwhelming when you set out to research a particular topic. The good news is that using Boolean search operators is not as complicated as it seems.

I sat down with expert education library technician Amber McIver to learn the best tips and tricks for using search operators - so you can find exactly the references you’re looking for.

Use Boolean Search Operators

The first tip for conducting a library search that gets you exactly the results you want is learning how to use the most common Boolean search operators AND, OR, and NOT.

A Boolean search, named after mathematician and philosopher George Boole, refers to a combination of keywords and operators that allows you to define the results you’re looking for in a computer database.

“Understanding Boolean search operators is the first step to having more control over your library search”, advises McIver. And using the operators? Not as complicated as you might think. Below is an outline of the most common search operators and what they do.

Common Search Operators

  • AND: Tells the search engine to narrow your search to include all the words and phrases you have entered, e.g. “educational administration” AND media.

  • OR: Tells the search engine to expand your search to include any of the words or phrases you have entered, e.g. “educational administration” OR “school administration”.

  • NOT: Tells the search engine to search all the words and phrases you have entered except the word or phrase entered after “NOT”, e.g. “school leadership” NOT elementary.

Note: All operators should be capitalized when you enter them into an advanced search.

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Other Operators

  • Parenthesis: Think of a math equation. Adding parentheses to your search tells the search engine to perform multiple searches at once, starting with the information in the brackets, e.g. (“educational administration” OR “school administration”) AND Twitter.

  • Truncation: Truncation, commonly represented by an asterisks (*), is a symbol that tells a database to search for multiple endings for the same root word. Truncation broadens your search to help you get the best results, e.g. (education* OR administ*) OR “educational administration” AND Twitter. Note: Not all databases support truncation.

  • Phrases: You can search for an exact phrase by placing it in quotation marks, e.g. “social media”. Note: This can significantly limit your search results, so ensure you are using the right subject codes (see below).

Identify Subject Categories

All university references are categorized by different subject categories. Subject classification helps to organize thousands of references by concept, which is determined by a library classification system such as Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal.

McIver recommends after conducting a preliminary library search to check out the subject categories listed under references that you’re most interested in. Make a list of these categories so that you can refine your search to find the exact materials you’re looking for.

As an example, I searched for “school leadership” AND “social media", and found the book pictured below. By scrolling down in the search to read the details, I was able to see the most commonly used subject categories for this book.

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Subject Codes.png

In the future when I am looking for references on school leaders and social media, I will know to use phrases like “educational technology” and “educational leadership” in my Boolean search.

Ask a Librarian

McIver’s most important piece of advice? Make an appointment with a librarian.

“While students can always ask the front desk librarians for assistance, making an appointment ensures that you get to speak with a subject-matter expert”, says McIver.

...students may not know that they have access to helpful subject guides or a collection of robots. They might not know about the history of education section in the basement.
Photo by me

Photo by me

Subject-matter experts are more likely to understand the specific subject terms that you want to use for your search and can provide you with resources you may not have known are available at your university. “At the Coutts Education Library, students may not know that they have access to helpful subject guides…or a collection of robots, “ laughs McIver. “They might not know about the history of education section in the basement”.

To book a consultation with a librarian, check your university library’s website to fill out a form or call the library.

Were these tips helpful to you? Let me know in the comments!


Amber McIver is a library technician at the Herbert T. Coutts Education Library at the University of Alberta. To learn more about the Herbert T. Coutts Education Library, click here.