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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

History 372 - Early American Thought and Culture

Search Tips

Tips for better, more effective searching

 Use key words to find good subject headings. 

Use the “root” subject heading to expand your retrievals. If you try a heading like Labor unions—Mexico—Strikes—1900-, and get nothing, cut it back to Labor unions—Mexico and see if you can good results.

 Take your search from the local to the national level. If you search  Labor unions—Mexico  in the UMass catalog catalog, you will get 83 hits. But taking the search to WorldCat, you get 1,074 hits! 

 Computers are not smart, they are stupid. They work literally on ones and zeros, bits and bytes. Google may use fuzzy logic to ask whether you meant to search such and such a term, but our catalog and databases don’t. In a search I did for another class, I first typed in Women’s rights—Iran, and got no results. I didn’t realize that the catalog doesn’t recognize ‘—so I retyped Womens rights—Iran and got the books I was seeking. When you don’t get the results you expect from a computer search, look and see whether you made an error!

Truncate your searches if possible. In one search, a student put in martyr and Islam into an online index. If you use truncation, which almost every index allows (look to see if it is *, #, ?, or some other symbol), you will gather more results and save searching time. Searching martyr* searches three terms at once: martyr, martyrs, and martyrdom. Searching maya* searches 3 terms, maya, mayans, and mayas all at once.

Keep variant spellings in mind. I helped a student who was researching a paper on Lebanon; we found articles on the radical Shiite organization under Hezbollah, Hizbollah, and Hizbullah.

Names of people and places are often different in foreign languages. Titian the artist is Tizano in Italian; the city of Cologne is Köln in German, etc.

When you see a bibliography in the catalog, go for it. Someone has already gone to the trouble of investigating your subject, so why reinvent the wheel? Make use of subject bibliographies. Just be sure to include them in your own bibliography.

Everything is NOT online…yet. I checked some subject bibliographies in, for example, Latin American literature, and fully one-third of items on random pages were NOT in the MLA online. Seek out older, printed sources, which were prepared decades ago with careful, patient research, and love.

Don’t settle for just one periodical index, or use only the “easy”, full-text one. The more specialized an index, the better your results will be. Remember that many excellent sources are still not electronic. Searching each volume of a print index is tedious, but it is the task of the researcher to develop some degree of sitzfleisch!

Above all, be methodical. Diagram or outline your subject terms or headings, and repeat the same search in different sources—in our catalog, or in WorldCat. Do the same for the periodical indexes you use, paying careful attention to their own internal vocabulary or thesaurus.

Finding books

Every non-fiction library book has subject headings assigned to classify it. Sometimes using key words will find you books on your subject, but except for very specific searches with distinctive words, using subject headings (known as LCSH's, or Library of Congress subject headings) will usually retrieve more books than just a keyword search.

Use key words to get LCSH's for better results. 

Also, remember to take your searches, if you like, from the local to the national/international level, by using Worldcat. If we have four or five books on subject x, and you want or need more information, search Worldcat using the same LCSH's you used for our catalog, and if you find books we don't own, you can order them by using Interlibrary loan (ILL). PowerPoint presentations on using Worldcat and ILL are on the "Library research help!" page of this guide.


RefWorks is a bibliographical management software which will help you organize your citations, articles, books, etc. paid for by the UMass Amherst Library, that the UMass Amherst community can access from the Library website. RefWorks collects, stores, and organizes citations from books, articles from databases, web sites, and other sources. RefWorks automatically converts citations into properly formatted bibliographies