GEOG 3404: Mountain Geography Course Guide: Building Searches

This goal of this guide is to provide a starting point and recommend resources for students in GEOG 3404 to use in their course projects.

What databases like

We're all used to searching Google, which allows you to put in full sentences (their algorithms go through and automatically pull out the keywords used, and yes, order is important in this case).  The library's databases prefer to be given more direction as to how they are to interpret your searches. 

This tab provides you with a few simple, yet powerful tools to construct good search statements.  These can also be used in search engines such as Google and Google Scholar.

Boolean Operators

Once you have developed keywords and terms that will help you identify and focus on more specific aspects of your topic, it’s helpful to create a search strategy that can be used to combine your terms using the Boolean operators AND and OR to search databases.

Boolean operators are very powerful tools that follow a specific logic.  They dictate how you want your keywords to be searched, you just have to state how you want them to be used to interpret your terms. The two most commonly used in databases are:

  • AND: this operator allows you to combine different concepts together.  When you type in AND between terms, all of the terms you enter must be present in order for the record to be retrieved.  For example:
    • mountain AND culture AND virginia
  • OR: this operator allows you to find synonyms that relate to a particular concept.  Whey you type in OR between terms, as long as at least one of terms you enter is in record, the result will come  back.  For example:
    • river OR creek OR stream

While many databases don't require for them to be capitalized, it is good practice to do so; plus you can quickly glance at your search statement and see where they are.  The above are the two most common, but there are other operators you can use. Check the "help" section of the database to see what other operators you can use that are supported by that particular database.

Other cool tools

In addition to Boolean operators, here are a few other tools you can use as you build your search statements:


Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to search for variations of a word so you didn't have to type OR all the time?  Good news, there is! The most common symbol used to add characters after a root word is the asterisks (*).  To use this, simply put the * at the end of your word, and the database will look for the root word, along with any letters that follow.  Be careful though, if your root word is too short, you'll get a lot of things that don't relate. For example:

forest* will find:

vet* will find:
  • forests
  • forest
  • forestry
  • foresters
  • vet
  • vets
  • veterinary
  • veterinarian(s)
  • veteran(s)
  • vetted
  • veto/vetoed/vetoes

There are other truncation symbols you can use within words as well. Check the "help" section of the database to see what other symbols are supported by that particular database and how they can be used.

Phrase Searching:

What if you need to search for a phrase?  You dictate that your terms must be found right next to each other and in the order you write them in simply by putting two or more words in quotation marks.  For example:

  • "Appalachian mountains"
  • "geographic information system"
  • "new river valley"

Nested Searches:

What if you want to use more than one Boolean operator and more than one of the above tools?  It is very easy to combine Boolean operators, but as this follows a logical system, you must include parentheses to dictate order of operations.  For example, while the following two searches use the same terms and the same Boolean operators in the exact same order, they'll return very different numbers of results based on how the search was interpreted (bold and colors demonstrate how it will be read by the system):

  • this search: "Pilot mountain" OR "Sauratown Mountains" AND river* OR creek* OR stream* AND pollut*

would be interpreted as: "Pilot mountain" OR "Sauratown Mountains" AND river* OR creek* OR stream* AND pollut*  

as the the above will look for records that have the phrase "Pilot mountain" OR... anything that follows; it will look for records that have the phrase and term "Sauratown Mountains" AND river (and all variations: rivers, etc); it will look for records that have the term creek (and all variations: creeks, etc); and it will look for records that have the terms stream (and all variations: streams) and pollution/polluted/polluting (all variations of pollut*).

  • this search: ("Pilot mountain" OR "Sauratown Mountains") AND (river* OR creek* OR stream*) AND pollut*

would be interpreted as: ("Pilot mountain" OR "Sauratown Mountains") AND (river* OR creek* OR stream*) AND pollut*

as this search will look for records that have either (or both) of the phrases "pilot mountain"/"Sauratown mountains", but it also has to include either of the terms (and the variations of: river/creek/stream, and it has to include any of the variations of the term pollut* (polluted, polluting, pollution, etc) in order to come back in the results list.  


Head, Digital Literacy Initiatives

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Julia Feerrar
University Libraries (0434)
Newman Library, 317
Virginia Tech
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Blacksburg, VA 24061