Social Work *: Search Operators

Library resources for the social work profession.

Search Operators (Boolean Searching)

What are Boolean Operators?

Boolean operators are used by databases to focus searches. Three boolean operators are most recognized by databases: AND, OR, NOT. When using the operators, use them in all CAPS.


  • Use AND to tell the database that your search results must include both or all of your keywords
  • It helps to narrow your results by combining keywords
  • It helps when searching a broad topic, to retrieve fewer results 
  • Example: higher education AND online learning will retrieve results that include are relevant to higher education in relation to online learning


  • Use OR to connect two or more similar concepts

  • It helps to broaden your search and retrieve more results

  • When using this operator, not all results will contain both concepts

  • Example: online learning OR distance education


  • Use NOT to exclude concepts from your search
  • It helps to narrow your search because it excludes concepts
  • It tells the database to ignore results related to a keyword
  • Example: online learning NOT "graduate school" will retrieve results that are relevant to online learning but exclude all results that are related to graduate school


Search Order

Does the order of the boolean operators matter? 

Databases typically see AND as the primary operator and will connect search terms with AND first. To override the order, place the terms that you are connecting with OR in parentheses. 

Most databases and search engines will search the statements within the parentheses first. 

  • Example: (online learning OR distance education) AND zoomThis will search will retrieve results containing online learning and zoom, and also distance education and zoom.

Phrase Searching

Why do some search terms have quotation marks? 

Using quotes around keywords is called phrase searching. Not all databases or search engines use this, but it's a common way to search an exact phrase and get a more focused search. Example: "online learning"