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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Reference Interview and Instruction in Reference Training

This guide accompanies the U of I Library graduate assistant training session.

Creating a Search Strategy

Once the patron's question has been successfully negotiated it is necessary to create a search strategy to begin to locate information. It is your job to help the user understand what this means and why it is important. 

Why is a search strategy important?

  • Techniques that are successful for searching Google do not transfer to library databases.
  • A search strategy breaks the search down into keywords or concepts that focus on the most important elements of the patron's question.
  • Identifying the main concepts will focus the search and yield more relevant results in the search.
  • Note: A patron who is an experienced searcher, such as a faculty member or graduate student, may need less assistance creating a search strategy than a first-year student.

How is a search strategy constructed?

The following example shows how a patron's question can be used to identify keywords and concepts in preparation for searching. The keywords and keyword phrases are highlighted.

Sample question:

"I need some information about the impact of exercise on the mental health of college students." 

It is also helpful to brainstorm alternative keywords (think synonyms) for each of the keywords identified. These will provide additional options to use in a search if the initial keywords do not yield adequate results.

Exercise: physical activity, running, weight lifting

Mental health: depression, anxiety, happiness

College students: undergraduates, freshmen, students

Beginning a Search

Using the information you learned about your patron in the course of your reference interview, select a database to begin searching.

  • Are books, articles, or something else needed? Use these as your initial guidelines for beginning your search.
  • For a student in a first-year or general course, a basic database such as Academic Search Ultimate is a good starting point.
  • For a course in a student's major or advanced research a subject database is likely to be best.

Help the patron understand how to enter the keywords into the database or catalog search boxes.

  • One keyword/keyword phrase or concept per search box
  • Place additional keywords or phrases in additional boxes
  • Add additional search boxes as needed
  • Note information fields available in your search interface

Too much information? Show the patron how to focus their search by adding additional keywords or substituting a related keyword.

Too little information? Show the patron how to broaden their search by removing keywords or substituting a broader keyword.