These pages give some guidance around what kinds of information are available for academic work and how to search for information across these various sources.
Think, first, about the results you want.
Understanding the scope of the task ahead will help you to determine your search strategy.
Write down all of your search terms, all potential search terms, and all potential keywords or synonyms, and then do some critical analysis on them. How broad or specific are they? How might they be misinterpreted? How well do they reflect what you're actually looking for?
In addition, many search engines and databases allow you to use operators to improve your searches, such as:
Note that the specific functionality for each individual search engine will differ, as will the symbols you use. But most sites have an FAQ section which gives clues about the symbols and functionality they offer.
Reflecting on your results - why you've found them, and what you might subsequently do to modify your search - is an important part of the process.
Some material is harder to find than other material: social, political and economic forces shape the creation of both primary and secondary sources, and this means that minority voices and the lives of those with less power are not always well represented in the databases and catalogues you're searching. If you are seeking perspectives that seem to be difficult to uncover, incorporate this in your evaluation of your search strategy.
Searching is iterative and non-linear. Your results will lead you to additional search terms, additional ways of understanding those terms, and additional questions.
Try out a few speculative searches
Think through why a search worked, or didn't work, and what might be done to improve it. It might be that your search terms are too broad or narrow, an issue with the database, or that you're trying to find information that is harder to find or access. Whatever the reasons, getting into the habit of assessing what you find, and adjusting your methods for finding it, will make you a far more accomplished user of all sorts of resources.
This guide is an amended version of the University of York's Searching for Information: a practical guide, which is shared under a CC-BY-NC-SA creative commons license. This guide is licensed the same.