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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Advanced Library Search Strategies

Learn how to search for articles, books, and other scholarly works through citation chasing and optimal keyword searching. This guide accompanies the Savvy Researcher workshop, "Advanced Library Search Strategies."

What is a Database Thesaurus?

A thesaurus is a list of the specialized vocabulary used in a database. It often shows the relationships among and between different terms. This can be really useful as you are conducting your searches because it can help you identify additional search terms to use. As you’re searching in a thesaurus, it will often suggest the preferred term that corresponds to the keyword you entered.  

What are Controlled Vocabulary?

Controlled vocabulary means that one term is chosen as the “preferred” word for a given concept. These chosen words can also be called subject terms or descriptors. When an article is indexed (or incorporated into) a database, it is typically assigned a set of subject headings from the controlled vocabulary. Regardless of the term that a particular researcher or author uses to describe a concept in their article, it will get assigned a subject term from the list of controlled vocabulary.

Guided Practice

Step 1:

  • Scroll down to the icons on the Library homepage. Click on the middle icon, "Databases by Subject & A-Z" (it is an orange computer logo with 'A-Z' on its screen).
  • This is the list of all the Library databases. Since it is organized alphabetically by default, "Academic Search Ultimate" should be the fourth result. It is a broad, multidisciplinary database and a great place to start your research. Click on the title to enter the database.
  • You may be prompted to log in with your Net ID and password.

Step 2: 

  • At the top of the page, above the orange "I" icon, there is a menu. Look for "Subject Terms." This is the thesaurus for Academic Search Ultimate. 
  • Underneath that same orange "I" icon, there should now be another search bar, labeled "Academic Search Ultimate -- Subject Terms." 
  • This is where you will conduct your searches for controlled vocabulary.

Step 3:

  • Let's try searching the term, "schooling." You will see that underneath the Subject Terms search bar, a list of results has populated. 
  • It shows that for "schooling" you should use "education."
  • Click on "education" twice to see additional information about this controlled vocabulary.

Step 4:

  • As you can see, "education" is a very broad controlled vocabulary, so there are many narrower terms. This is a great way to find additional keywords to use while conducting searches for research articles. 
  • Additionally, if you scroll to the bottom, it will show you what "education" is used for. This means that if an author uses any of those words to describe a certain concept or idea in their article, they will be classified under "education" to make it easier for researchers to find all articles that cover the same concept (despite the fact that the author might use a different word in their work).