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Loyola University Chicago Libraries

Library Workshops: Tame the Search Results List: Strategies

A guide to current and past workshops offered by the Loyola Libraries.

Tame the Search Results List: Strategies

The Workshop --

Search result lists generated by research databases and library catalogs can be daunting.  Discover how to identify and change their arrangement while finding the results that are relevant to you.  Questions may be sent to Jane Currie (

View the slides used during the workshop

Strategy 1: Be attentive to the sort

Every search result list will have a default means of sorting it, usually relevance.  How effective that relevance ranking is an open question.  The database is identifying your keywords in its records and where within individual records those keywords are located (such as the item title, its abstract, and its subject indicators).

The sort can usually be changed; options vary by database but generally include date (ascending to descending), title, and author (with the last two creating alphabetically-arranged lists).

When you are looking at a results list ranked by relevance, remember that it is an imperfect system.  Take time to look past the first, or even the first five, items on the list.  You may find just what you are seeking is actually there, just not where you expected.

When you experiment with alternate searches, be mindful of what pieces of bibliographic information the database you're using has the capacity to search.  For example, a research database such as Academic Search Complete can search for your keywords in an abstract and a full-text archive such as JSTOR can search the entire text of an article.  This allows for more detailed searching than a library catalog where, generally, only item titles and subject headings are searched (with exceptions; some catalog records contain the table of contents and/or a summary).

A special consideration regarding WorldCat  Note that WorldCat results lists use, by default, a combination of relevance and Loyola's ownership of a book to determine its results list ranking.  If your objective in using WorldCat is to find books Loyola doesn't own, you will want to change the sort to relevance only.

Strategy 2: Move through the list methodically

The fastest means to getting through results lists is to be methodical.  One such method appears below.

  1. Start with the title:
    • If promising, continue;
    • If not, move to the next item.
  2. Skim the subject headings:
    • Look for clues to the aboutness of the item.
    • Watch for new terminology for subsequent searches.
  3. Skim the abstract:
    • If promising, save the item record using a permalink, your citation manager, or another means you prefer;
    • If not, move to the next item.


Strategy 3: Ask for ideas if you're feeling stuck

You're not in this alone!  Researchers are often amazed by how talking to another person about their research can help them get unstuck.  Librarians are available to help.  We can suggest alternate keywords and keyword combinations, employ subject headings, and suggest additional research tools.  We might be able to recognize features of your existing results lists that you've overlooked, or help you see them differently.  Check out all of the ways you can contact us, and please do!

Subject Librarian

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Jane Currie
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