Searching as Strategic Exploration

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following:

Searching as Strategic Exploration is a cornerstone of the ACRL’s 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… relevant sources as well as the means to access those sources.”


We introduced the importance of inquiry in the previous section where we linked it to curiosity and the art of asking good questions. Now let’s dig deeper into this idea to emphasize the role inquiry plays in establishing a successful search strategy. For example, before you begin your search, take some time to answer the following questions:

  • What is the scope of your project and your information needs?
  • What types of information might you need and how will you access that information? Your options might include scholarly books, journal articles, film/media, art, statistics, demographics, and primary sources;
  • Do you know the core journals and subject databases in your field? If not, how can you learn about these? Spoiler alert: Meet with a librarian!
  • Who is your target audience?
  • Have you identified someone in your field you can talk to or email for recommendations or advice?

Answering these questions early will do a lot of work for you because the answers will help you to create a strategy that will shape and give direction to your research.

Once you begin searching journals, databases, and other resources, refine your strategy based on the quality and relevance of your results. An important point is to approach this process with an open mind and base your conclusions on the evidence you find. Generally speaking, you want your research to generate discussion, but the nature of that discussion will depend on how open or closed the questions you’re asking are. Is there a wealth of evidence supporting a particular claim or is there room for interpretation and counter evidence?

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”:

Literature Research Strategies – Part 1 [6 min 26 sec]

Key quotes from the video:


“I’m communicating to others in the field. And so even if I’m just an undergrad writing a paper I try to frame the audience on a wider level of like ‘this could possibly be published in a journal’ or ‘this could be a conference paper or a presentation.’”


“I also wish I would have made an appointment with the librarian for a research consultation, because I think that would have definitely guided my research a little bit more.”


“Serendipity is a really important part of the research process just because it’s important to have an open view of what you can add to your paper.”

Note how Jada began her study 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.

Avoid “Finding Quotes to Support Your Claim”

Many novice researchers approach the task with the idea that they just need to find a few quotes to support their claim and their research is done. The sooner we get past this idea, the better. You are finding quotes, but you should be willing to include ones that don’t support your claim. Advanced researchers think of “positioning” their claims in relationship to others. Positioning means that your discuss how your claims are closer to some and further from others. There may be a discernible pattern to the group of claims made by other researchers, such that you can divide them into sub-types and put yours into a category. Later in this book (Chapter 6), we discuss the process of organizing our research materials into an annotated bibliography and then a review of literature. These tools allow you to show your readers how your research relates to that of others.



Once you have a list of questions you’d like to explore in our journals and databases, the next step will be to break those questions into strategic keywords. Unlike popular search engines, databases don’t respond well to long queries or phrases. They are designed around subject terms and keywords. Also note that the results you find in our databases will include a list or lists of keywords and subject terms within the article records. Those are there to 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

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 and think of synonyms before you start searching.
  • 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 (watch the above video for guidance about how to do this).
  • Begin searching in a database (such as MLA) by entering those key terms into the search field (notice that the database will provide possible alternatives). So, searching “Race” as a general keyword generates alternate terms such 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 database’s records and breaks them down by which ones 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 as well as the 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 attract like-minded scholars to that article, and they can provide clues as to what types of terms other researchers are using.
  • Remember, this is an act of strategic exploration. It involves a lot of trial and error!

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

Example [Discovery]

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 [1 min 38 sec]

Using Search Limiters [1 min 16 sec]

Keywords Pack-A-Punch [1 min 58 sec]

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.

For more effective search strategies, see chapter seven where we discuss database searching more in-depth.


Researchers rarely go to the library 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 that 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.

For more advice on Searching as Strategic Exploration, consider the following from[2]

Strategy is about being nimble and smart rather than worn down to the bone, and strategy also relies on self-reflection.

  • Scope, Rhetoric & Context: The value of information, how it is used, is deeply rhetorical. When first examining your rhetorical context, analyze whether your readers are receptive to personal observation. Alternatively, do they expect textual research or experimental study? Thus, it’s essential that you evaluate what your readers know about your topic. What types of information would your audience find persuasive? How contentious or emotional is the topic? How much time do you have?
  • Serendipity & Flexibility: Be open to exploring information resources you may be unfamiliar with, such as subject-specific databases, discussions with experts, or just browsing and tracing footnotes from article to article.
  • Knowledge of Different Search Tools and Search Techniques. Are you cognizant of the limitations of a Google Scholar Search vs. a search on Web of Science or JSTOR? Do you know the difference between the Open Web, the Deep Web, and the TOR Network?

Searching as Strategic Exploration [Refresher]

Take this quiz to check your comprehension of this section.
If you are using an offline version of this text, access the quiz for this section via the QR code.


  1. See the rubric below, which provides assessment for your search plan. You are proposing a possible research project, one that you can change later if you’d like. The goal is to state a problem relevant to a field of literary scholars. You can build on previous assignments in this class. Do you have a coherent plan for beginning your research into a literary work (or works)? What questions do you want to answer? What are your key search terms? Do you have a list of journals or databases to search? What parts of the plan need to be more clearly defined?
  2. If there are any elements of your assignment that need clarification, please list them.
  3. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand.
Above Satisfactory (A/B) Satisfactory (C) Below Satisfactory (D/F)
Inquiry Determined the scope of the project and information needs. Somewhat determined the scope of the project and information needs. Did not determine the scope of the project and information needs.
Discovery Successfully divided a broad search into strategic keywords that yielded high-quality scholarly articles. Divided a broad search into strategic keywords that yielded adequate scholarly articles. Did not divide a broad search into strategic keywords and/or those keywords yielded low- quality scholarly articles.
Serendipity Successfully expanded the scope of the research to include multiple perspectives and was open to unexpected discoveries. Somewhat expanded the scope of the research to include multiple perspectives, but did not discover much new information. Did not expand the scope of the research to include multiple perspectives and/or was not open to unexpected discoveries.

More Resources

Click the following link for an Annotated List of Open Access Resources from

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

  1. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Searching as Strategic Exploration.
  2. Writing Commons. “Searching as a Strategic Exploration.” Writing Commons, 27 July 2021,


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Searching as Strategic Exploration Copyright © 2021 by Barry Mauer and John Venecek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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