Adopting a Savvy Search System

The Internet can be a confusing place when you’re looking for current, high-quality information. Despite recent efforts by some to impose an order to the Web, for the most part it remains without a relatable structure or any real rules for classification, which librarians have been concerned about since the earliest days of the Internet.

This cartoon illustrates the conundrum:

A dreaming librarian, complete with sleeping cap and cat, imagines via a bubble cloud, that a representative from the world’s largest search engine is approaching her information desk to ask for help organizing the world’s information on the web. She exclaims, “Finally” from behind her information desk labeled, “Librarian: the original search engine”.

Source: When librarians dream by T. Albin licensed under Creative Commons CC BY SA

Fortunately for educator-curators, Creative Commons licensed resources are finding their own spaces for content and integrating with popular search sites, making it easier to discover and use material (many of which are listed below under Spotlight on Repositories). But before you begin to explore the various sites, it is worth reviewing some basic search strategies. (Note: There are more specific strategies if you are searching more organized resources such as library databases.)

Choose keywords carefully

Most searches begin with a straightforward keyword search. It pays to take a few moments to consider the best keywords to use. For example, suppose you are searching for information on a game you can use to teach a concept in a chemistry class. If you plug in chemistry game, you would expect the search engine to return anything with chemistry or game in the searchable information. But what if game isn’t the best word to use? Perhaps what you are really after is a simulation? Would your search find for you what you want?

Think of different words that other people may use to describe something. You may reveal hidden gems, especially when searching a resource that lacks a defined organizational structure (i.e., the Web)!

A purple topped Sharpie marker lays flat with four tags attached to it by strings. One word is written on each of the tags – Sharpie, purple, pen, and marker.

For example, even for something as common as a writing utensil, consider all the ways different people may choose to describe the object and how that might impact either finding what they describe or understanding what the object is.


Now test yourself. Click on the link and enter your descriptions for the object shown:

Once you have entered your words if you want to see the voting results and compare your answers to your colleagues, check out the ever-changing word cloud at:

Learn to use limiters

Learning how to use limiters—or Boolean operators—can save you a lot of search time. Boolean operators are the words “AND,” “OR,” and “NOT.” They are small words with a lot of search power!

For example, suppose you are attempting a basic search to find information on learner motivation at postsecondary institutions. You identify “colleges” and “universities” as your basic search terms.

If you search “colleges AND universities,” your results must include both terms. The starred (overlapping) area in the graphic below depicts the results.

AND diagram

If you search “colleges OR universities,” your results change, with the stars now in both overlapping and separate areas.

OR diagram

And if you choose to narrow your search to “colleges NOT universities,” the results are different again.

NOT diagram
  • Using “AND” narrows your results as both terms must be present; there is more precision in your search.
  • Using “OR” expands your results as only one term must be present; you have less precision, but you are also less likely to miss an important resource.
  • Using “NOT” excludes a term completely; you will want to use this with care as you might miss an important resource.

The helpful three-minute video from B.D. Owens Library (Northwest Missouri State University) provides more examples of conducting searches effectively:

Check your understanding

  • Take this short quiz to check your understanding of how Boolean operators work:
  • Take Google out for a test drive using your new skills. See how your results change when you apply the following variables:
    • Put quotes around a term (“”) to force a phrase search (i.e., return results only where the words in the phrase are together)
    • Use “OR” to expand your search to include synonyms (term 1 OR term 2 OR term 3)
    • Use “AND” to narrow your search (term 1 AND term 2 AND term 3, which gives results that include all three terms)

Now you are ready to explore the various curation tools and repositories using your refreshed search skills. Remember, pay close attention to your search terms. Do not assume a repository has nothing about your subject if the results are low or zero. Try searching again using another term or word to describe your subject area. And remember to use your Boolean operators!