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Your starting point for finding background information, books, articles, and literary criticism.

About Search Techniques

Below are search techniques that work with most databases (i.e. the library catalog, New York Times database and the MLA Interational Bibliography). For search techniques that work in Google see their Punctuation, Symbols and Operators list.

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators are terms like AND, OR, NOT which help to limit or expand your search. Some databases and search engines like Google require AND, OR, NOT to be capitalized.  To play it safe, it is best to capitalize these terms regardless of the database you are using.

  • jazz OR blues

This search finds articles that discuss either jazz or blues.
OR always broadens a search.

  • jazz AND blues

This search finds articles that compare jazz and blues.
AND always narrows a search.

  • jazz NOT blues

This search finds articles that are exclusively about jazz.
NOT always excludes records with the specified term.

For example, here is what a search for Toni Morrison AND Jazz OR Blues would look like in the MLA database:

advanced search box with "Toni Morrison" in first box, "AND jazz" in second box, and "OR blues" in their box.

Wildcard Searches

A wildcard is a symbol that takes the place of an unknown character or set of characters. Commonly used wildcards are the asterisk ( * ) and the question mark ( ? )

The question mark ( ? )

  • The question mark represents only one unknown character. 
  • For example searching the word wom?n will have results that include women and woman.

The asterisk ( * )

  • The asterisk can represent more than one character
  • For example, if you didn't know whether the name is spelled Woolf or Wolf, search W*lf. Here is what it would look like in an MLA database search:

Wolf keyword with asterick for wild card search



Truncation uses an asterisk ( * ) to search for multiple forms of the same word.  It is similar to or the same as using a wildcard. 

  • For example, searching illustr* will have results that includes the words illustrate, illustration, and illustrated. Here is how it might be used in an MLA database search for articles on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and illustration:


‚Äčilliustration keyword with asterick as wild card search

Quotations Marks & Parentheses

Quotation Marks group words together:

  • French Revolution, searching "French Revolution" will keep the search results from trailing off into other information about revolutions or France.   

Parentheses indicate precisely what you are searching for or isolate part of a query:

  • For example, if you want to search Paris+Normandy or Strasbourg write: (Paris AND Normandy) OR Strasbourg.  If instead you definitely want to search Paris and then you would like to find results about Normandy or Strasbourg write: Paris AND (Normandy OR Strasbourg).

Combining Search Commands

  • For example, to search ethics/ethical or morality/moral+ American Civil War you can try: (ethic* OR moral*) AND "American Civil War"
  •  Or, to search the American Revolution + French or France you can try: "American Revolution" AND Fr?nc? or "American Revolution" AND (France OR French)