Chapter Three: Searching as Strategic Exploration / Scholarship as Conversation

Searching as Strategic Exploration

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Searching as Strategic Exploration is a cornerstone of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy: “Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.” Further, “The act of searching often begins with a question that directs the act of finding needed information. Encompassing inquiry, discovery, and serendipity, searching identifies both possible relevant sources as well as the means to access those sources.”

We will take a closer look at these ideas in this chapter by focusing on the following concepts:


Many students jump into the literature review without establishing a successful search strategy. Taking a shortcut here can lead to frustration and discouragement down the road. Before you begin your review, take some time to consider the following points:

  • Determine the scope of your project and your information needs;
  • Identify what types of information you might need and how you will access that information. Your options might include scholarly books, journal articles, film and media, art, statistics, and demographics;
  • Match your information needs and search strategy to the appropriate subject databases;
  • Refine your strategy based on the quality and relevance of your results.

For a more detailed overview of this approach, let’s watch Jada discussing the early stages of her research about the James Baldwin short story, “Sonny’s Blues”:

Note how Jada began by conducting basic background research online. She specifically sought out interviews and videos with Baldwin so she could hear him discuss his motivations and influences in his own words. While this type of information is not considered scholarly per se, it adds context to the story, which helped Jada be more strategic as she transitioned from online searching to the literature databases available through the UCF Libraries.

When creating your search strategy, emphasize strategic keywords. Unlike popular search engines, databases don’t respond well to long queries or phrases. They are designed around subject terms and keywords. Once you begin searching the databases, be aware of the keywords and subject terms located within the article records. They can guide your search and help you learn the language of the field. What types of terminology or jargon do literature scholars use? Even a slight variation can make a significant difference in the quality of your results. In a forthcoming page titled Database Search Strategies, we offer advice on how to search effectively.


As Jada began searching key literature databases such as MLA and JSTOR, she broke her broad search into strategic keywords that yielded high-quality scholarly articles. Before searching the databases, you should take a few minutes to break your topic into keywords.

Tips for Generating Keywords

  • Brainstorm possible keywords about your topic before you start searching and think of synonyms.
  • Avoid long phrases and queries. Databases are designed around keywords and subject terms. If you have a research question, break it into keywords before you start searching (they talk about how to do this in the above video).
  • Begin searching in a database (such as MLA) by entering those terms into the search field and notice that the database will provide possible alternatives. So, searching “Race” as a general keyword generates alternate terms as Race AND gender, ethnicity, minority, discrimination, relations, education, and America.
  • However, sometimes it helps to start with a broad search and use the database limiters to help you narrow and focus. For example, “race” generates 19,528 results in MLA. Open the subject limiter in the sidebar that extracts subject terms from the records and breaks them down by which recur most often. That tool is designed to help researchers narrow and focus as they’re searching and there may be some new terms in there as well.
  • Once you start finding some relevant result, dig deeper by mining the article record and noting the subject terms and author-supplied keywords (if any), then read the abstract and introduction and highlight any new terms you find there. Pay particular attention to the author-supplied keywords when they appear because those are there to attracts like-minded scholars to that article and they can provide clues as to what types of terms other researchers are using.
  • Emphasize that this is an act of strategic exploration that involves a lot of trial and error.


A brainstorming activity based on James Baldwin and “Sonny’s Blues” might look something like this:


Key terms:

Keyword A: James Baldwin

Keyword B: Sonny’s Blues

Keyword C: African American literature/writers

Keyword D: African American short stories

Keyword E: Marxism

Keyword F: Race/Racism

Keyword G: Ethnic/black identity

Keyword H: Masculinity/African American Men

Keyword I: Autobiography

Keyword J: Civil Rights

Keyword K: Ethnomusicology

Keyword L: Jazz/Harlem Renaissance

Keyword M: Race relations

Keyword N: Gender studies/sexuality

Keyword O: Activism/social justice

This is just a preliminary list that will grow once we start searching, but it provides a sense of how to break Jada’s broad topic into strategic keywords, each of which opens new possibilities. While creating your list, avoid using overly generic terms such as “short story” or “novel.” You will get far too many results and the vast majority of them will not be helpful to you.

For more information about refining your search with subject terms, search limiters, and strategic keywords, please watch the following videos from the Libraries’ Research tips Thursdays webinar series.

Subject Terms: Use Them To Your Advantage:

Using Search Limiters:

Keywords Pack-A-Punch:

Also, when entering your terms into the database, try to strategically combine terms such as “Baldwin AND Civil Rights” or “Sonny’s Blues AND Harlem Renaissance.” These combined terms will help narrow and focus your results and will save you time. Also, you can search for particular characters in a story to get more refined results.

Creating a successful search strategy involves some trial and error. Explore a variety of databases and alter your keywords. Eventually, you’ll find the combination that yields the best results.

Once you find a good scholarly paper on your topic, you can use it to search for additional resources by mining its works cited. Even if the article itself is not the most useful to your research, the author may cite other sources that are important to your work. Then look at the works cited section of the next article, and then next, and so on.

Another good place to begin your search is in reference materials. The library has a large section of reference books (many of them have now moved online) and they present general overviews as well as lists of additional resources. A reference librarian will be able to point you in the right direction.


Researchers rarely go to the library stacks for one book and come back with one book; they come back with an armful of books and the serendipitous discoveries they make while browsing are often the most valuable.

Serendipity is an important part of the discovery process. While it’s good to be strategic, it’s also wise to be open to unexpected discoveries that may impact the scope of your research. Jada used the river and tributary analogy to account for the serendipity of her research process. The river is the main stream of books and articles in the library catalog and subject databases. The tributaries, however, are the unexpected discoveries and diversions you make that can have a profound impact on your research.

The unexpected discovery in Jada’s case was an article entitled, “The Sociology of the Ghetto in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues.’” She discovered this article by expanding her research beyond the key literature databases to bring a more interdisciplinary perspective into her paper. In doing so, she discovered the sociologists were interested in the same issues that influenced Baldwin’s work, which in turn shed new light on her background and experiences with race and class.

While it’s difficult to plan for a serendipitous discovery, you can enhance your chances by doing as Jada did: Expanding the scope of your research to multiple perspectives and being open to unexpected discoveries.

Keep these concepts in mind as we move into entering the scholarly conversation, arguing for relevance, and establishing criteria.


  1. Do you have a coherent plan for beginning your research? What is your plan? If not, what parts of the plan need to be more clearly defined?
  2. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?

Write your answers in a webcourse discussion page.

Go to the Discussion area and find the Searching as Strategic Exploration Discussion. Participate in the discussion.


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Strategies for Conducting Literary Research Copyright © 2021 by Barry Mauer & John Venecek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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