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This guide was created for students across disciplines in their study and analysis of literature.

Background Information

The first step with any assignment is to clarify any terms you are unsure of and identify any gaps in your understanding of your topic. Using reference materials (encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks) is like using Wikipedia, but better! Reference materials contain concise entries about different topics to help you define what you're looking for. Check out the reference materials below to learn more about different writers, their work, literary terminology, and theory.

Search Tips


Keywords are words that hold the essence, or the key, of what you are trying to find. Keywords should be descriptive and short and are often (but not always) nouns. If you're feeling stuck, try using a key concept/idea, a key group (e.g.: women, newcomers, Indigenous people), a location, a literary concept (e.g.: satire, metaphor, characterization, genre) or a time period as your keywords.

If you are searching for sources for an assignment, you can identify the first keywords from the topic itself.  Usually three keywords will give your search a good level of specificity. The more keywords you add, the narrower your search becomes.

Topic example: How do female characters portray strength in science fiction?

KeywordsWomen (key group), science fiction (literary genre), strength (concept)


Synonyms are words that have the same, or nearly the same, meaning as the main keywords. Synonyms and keywords are interchangeable, which means that the meaning of your search will remain the same but your scope will be more broad. Using synonyms is a good way to capture extra results that are still related to your original topic.

Here are a few synonyms for the topic: How do female characters portray strength in science fiction?

Women = Woman, females, girls, nonbinary

science fiction = sci-fi, fantasy (not exactly the same genre, but close!)

strength = power, control

Boolean operators are a set of commands that you can use when searching. By using them in your search, you will either broaden or narrow your results. The three most popular Boolean operators are: AND, OR and NOT.
AND:  Use AND to join your keywords. Using AND will also narrow your search since it requires the database to find instances where both of your keywords are present. For example: “social sciences” AND research
OR: Use OR to connect your synonyms. Using OR will broaden your search since it will look for either one of the synonyms.  Example: “social sciences” OR “sociology”
NOT: Use NOT when you are looking for one term not the other. Example: “social sciences” NOT “earth science”


Boolean operators can be used in the search box:

Or the Advanced Search screen in our library catalogue: 


Use quotation marks when searching a for an exact phrase. This will instruct the search engine to find results with the two words together rather than separately. Be careful not to include too many words in quotations marks (i.e., entire sentences) as this may limit your search.
Examples: "Deus Ex Machina"; "first person narrative"; "science fiction"; "climate change"
Truncation means to shorten a word. You can search all the alternate endings of a word by using an asterisk ( * ). You can also use the asterisk as a "wild card", when used this way, the asterisk will search for alternate spellings of a word. 


Truncation examples:

Canad*  will search for Canada, Canadian, Canadians all at the same time.
femini* will search for feminist, feminism, feminization, etc.

Wildcard example:

Wom*n  will search: woman, women

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