Creating a Keyword Search to Use in Databases, Catalogs, and Search Engines

Databases, catalogs, and search engines can only find what you tell them to look for. Once you have brainstormed a list of search terms for your topic, you'll use one of these methods to begin searching:

Natural Language Searching

When you type words into Google's search box, you are using natural language searching.

  • Google searches the words you enter using the Boolean operator AND (see below for details).
  • It will not search for the entire phrase unless you put quotation marks around it.

This is also what happens when you do a basic keyword search in the library catalog and most databases. This method will usually get you some results, but you can save time by getting more relevant results faster using the techniques below.

Boolean Search

You can broaden or narrow your search results by using these Boolean operators:

 AND venn diagram - overlap is results, others excluded AND AND means every term you type must be present in the record. Use of AND narrows, or focuses, your search.
 OR Venn Diagram: All of both circles included in search results OR OR means one of the terms must be present in the record. OR is useful for synonyms or alternate spellings of words. Use of OR broadens your search.
 NOT venn diagram - anything encompassed by NOT term excluded from results NOT NOT means that a term must not be present in the record.


TRUNCATION TRUNCATION allows you to search for different forms of a word by using a symbol to represent the alternate endings of the root word.

(word or words)

NESTING NESTING or ORDER OF OPERATION uses parentheses to indicate which terms belong together in a set.

After you have identified what terms you would like to be combined and how, you can create your Boolean search statement:

(college* or universit*) and student* and (scholarship* or grant*)

Excluding Terms

Suppose you want to exclude information about scholarships available in Canada. You can modify your search statement.

(college* or universit*) and student* and (scholarship* or grant*) not Canad*Be careful when using NOT, since you will exclude some information that may be very useful to your research.

screenshot of boolean search screen


Field Searching

You can also refine a Boolean search by specifying which fields of the electronic record you would like to be searched. The example search below is set to search for keywords throughout the record, but you could also narrow it to searching for those words in the Title, Author, or Subject Heading.

screenshot of field search screen
Remember, Grinnell's research librarians are always happy to work with you to create a search statement.

Be sure to ask.