Research Library

Research Process

Research Process

There are a variety of different approaches in the research process and some models use a four, seven or more step-by-step research process. In order to provide a broad discussion of the different processes, several models will be discussed.

Library Staff Process

Library staff who provide research and reference assistance should follow a step-by-step procedure so they can ensure that they answer a customer query. At each of the four stages, the customer should be informed of the process so they are part of the information gathering process.

LibrInstalled Pluginsary staff will:

Identify the information needed

  • Select appropriate sources, such as primary sources or secondary sources.
  • Explore electronic and print resources.
  • Define the customer’s question and translate it into an information search.
  • Refine the search from a general topic to a specific research question.

Explore the topic and  information

  • Ensure they understand the information needs of the customer.
  • Agree with the customer on a search strategy.
  • Conduct effective search strategies.
  • Use the catalogue to locate library resources.
  • Use databases to locate periodical journals and articles.
  • Use the Internet (e.g. Google) to locate external resources of information

Evaluate and process the information

  • Assess the credibility and usefulness of sources.
  • Determine if there are too many or too few sources.
  • Broaden or narrow their search.
  • Follow-up with the customer to determine if the information is useful.

Cite and give credit to sources

  • Cite sources.
  • Ensure the customer understands copyright laws and fair use guidelines.
Some models divide the process into more steps but in terms of responding to information needs, each of the processes requires a precise search strategy. A sample of the research models includes:

College Libraries Ontario – How to Research

Cornell University Library – The Seven Steps of the Research Process

Library Learning Commons – Research Process

The Four Stages of the Research (Inquiry) Process

Search Strategies

A search strategy is an organized structure of key terms used to search a database. The search strategy combines the key concepts of your search question in order to retrieve accurate results.

When searching library catalogues and databases, they each have their own unique search logic and interface. Databases provide up-to-date and relevant information. Review these resources as they will provide a starting point for building search strategies:

A well-defined search strategy includes information from a variety of sources such as the catalogue, databases, and the Internet. The goal is to provide customers with information that is relevant and helps them to answer their questions.

Search databases using keywords, such as concepts or subject phrases, that are linked together by and, or, not used to identify articles and sources.   Once you have identified your topic, selecting your keywords is pretty simple.

How to create a search strategy:

  1. Divide your topic into concepts/segments/pieces. In the question, “What is the relationship between women’s fashion magazines and anorexia?” The search concepts are: women, fashion magazines, and anorexia.
  2. Brainstorm for synonyms and related terms. You will need to translate these terms to keywords later when you are searching databases for articles. Even if a combination of words works well in one database, you may have to change keywords to find results in another database.
Concepts:womenfashion magazinesanorexia
Related terms:womanfashion modelsbulimia
femalemodeling industryeating disorders

3. Create your search by combining your keywords using and, or, not.

    • And is used to narrow your search. Results returned will contain both sets of keywords.
    • Or is used to expand your search.  Results returned will return either keyword.
    • Not will limit your search, and will exclude a keyword from the results.

You can also use parentheses to combine your search strings. For example:

    • (woman or female) and (fashion magazines or modeling)

4.  Follow the database-specific language.

As you do your searching, keep track of the words that appear in the detailed descriptions, or records, of your results list in the fields that will be labeled with headings such as subjects, descriptors, or subject headings.   These synonyms and related terms are the specific vocabulary used to describe your search term in that database or discipline.  Using these in your search can often improve your search results by making it more accurate and efficient/less time.

Tips and Tricks


  • Use quotation marks to search for exact phrases

Boolean Operators

  • AND narrows your results (because all search terms must be present in the resulting records).
    Ex: bridges AND history AND civil engineering (the black triangle in the middle of the Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search).
    Note: Most search engines and databases will assume your search terms are connected with AND.
  • OR broadens your results (because search results may contain either or both search terms).
    Ex: university OR college OR higher education (the entire Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search).
    Note: OR is especially useful if your search terms have synonyms.
  • NOT excludes results with whichever search term follows it.
    Ex: mercury NOT planet (the dark green section in the Venn diagram represents the result set for this search).
    The order of your search terms matters when using NOT (results with the second search term will be excluded).



  • Search for words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other.
    • Proximity operators are composed of a letter (N or W) and a number (to specify the number of words). The proximity operator is placed between the words that are to be searched
    • Near Operator (N) – N5 finds the words if they are within five words of one another regardless of the order in which they appear.
    • Within Operator (W) – W8 finds the words if they are within eight words of one another and in the order in which you entered them. Ex: the results for tax W8 reform would include “tax reform” but would not include “reform of income tax”.


  • Truncation is represented by an asterisk (*)
  • Enter the root of a search term and replace the ending with an *
  • Ex: comput* finds results with computer, computing, computation, computational, etc.
  • Truncation can also be used between words (ex: a midsummer * dream will return results that contain the exact phrase, “a midsummer night’s dream”)


  • A wildcard is represented by a question mark (?) or a pound sign (#)
  • Using ? as a wildcard will only return results in which the wildcard is replaced by another character (e.g.: ‘ne?t’ will find results containing neat, nest or next, but it will not find results with net)
  • Using # as a wildcard will return results with or without an extra character (e.g.: ‘ne#t’ will find results containing neat, nest, or next as well as results containing net)

[Source: Binghamton University Library – How to do Library Research]

In order to practice your search strategy, the following video includes some practical tips:

Video: Quick Tips and Shortcuts for Database Searching

Searching the Internet

Libraries are no longer restricted to finding information within the resources they own. The Internet offers an unlimited amount of information and library staff are in a unique position to be the search navigators for customers. It also means that we need to be careful to ensure sources are properly validated and when necessary, offer guidance for information consumers who lack this critical skill set.

Video: Beginner’s Guide to Google Search


Public Libraries Online – Search vs. Research – A useful article to help you use the Internet more effectively and efficiently.

RUSA – Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service ProvidersSection 4 – Searching, outlines the model for an effective searcher.


How to Search on Google

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