Serendipity and Strategy: Learning from the Scavenger Hunt

An author, a core text from a class, a title of a book that your instructor recommends to you personally or puts on a reserves reading list  will contain clues that can lead you to other items thatcover the same topic, or some aspect of your topic may intrigue you.  

Its call number, as you learned from your foray into Widener, can identify  the "range" in the library'sstacks where you'll find related information.

Put the title (or the author or some combination of author and title) into the HOLLIS catalog search box.  Then, take a moment to pause and look at the descriptive information you'll be given in the item's bibliographic record: contents, descriptions, notes fields. 

Then zero in on its subject headings (the the tags we attach to HOLLIS records, describing the intellectual content of a library item).  Subject headings will link you to related items owned in libraries throughout the Harvard system, not just on one library's shelves. 

Once you have the item in hand, be strategic: look at its introduction, which  is typically where you'll find an author 

  • laying out his/her argument.
  • gesturing toward the researchers and scholars who have come before him/her and with whose previous work his/her publication is engaging: perhaps this work is intended as a confirmation, an amplification, a correction, a refutation, a new direction.
  • Identifying how each of the chapters/sections/parts of a text develops a line of argument or inquiry.


Use these features to help you figure out where you should concentrate your intellectual energies.  Your goal is sometimes to read widely, sometimes read deeply, but always to "read smart." 

Rely on the index at the back of a book to guide you when tables of contents don't reveal all they should.  Use bibliographies/footnotes to build out your list of authorities.

For more suggestions on reading critically, see Interrogating Texts: Six Reading Habits to Discover in Your First Year at Harvard.


Your "default" approach to searching Harvard's catalog, HOLLIS, is probably similar to your Google approach: enter some words, see what comes up, then try again or improve from there. But BROWSING in the catalog is an under-appreciated research strategy, especially when you're trying to discover your interest. It helps you see how writing ABOUT an author, an idea, an event, etc. has been broken down and categorized. So instead of getting the typical list of titles, you see results in terms of sub-topics. Inspiration may lie there!



Open HOLLIS. Click on the  link above the search box. Then select SUBJECT. 

If you type in child health, you'll be redirected to the "official" way of describing this topic in libraries:

children -- health and hygiene -- united states

Click a particular subject phrase (or heading) in the list and you'll retrieve the titles for all the library-owned items that have been "tagged" this way.


Examples of other broad categories: 





Browsing subject headings lists can teach you a lot about searching, because they rely on standardized language and standard ways of qualifying or further describing a give subject.  For example, these additional words may relate to a subject's geography (united states, massachusetts, canada, etc), or  the time period that's under discussion in a book (19th century, or 2lst century). Sometimes, a specific marker of the type of information is also included in a subject heading, like statistics; legislation; handbooks; case studies; etc.).


  • Use QUOTATION MARKS for phrases "united states"   ||  "childhood leukemia"

  • Connect search terms and phrases explicitly with AND/OR and do so with capital letters:  

 trauma AND children

  • Enclose synonyms or interchangeable concepts in PARENTHESES

(bully OR bullying ) AND school

  • Truncate words with an ASTERISK to pick up alternatives: 

child*  will also retrieve  children

  • FILTER your results via right side limit categories. They'll help you sharpen up and whittle down your search results by date, language, resource type, to peer-reviewed articles, and more.
  • Take advantage of special system features: always sign in.
  • STORE the items you want to track down or read later via the    icon; SAVE a good search so you can remember what worked.





HOLLIS combines the extensive contents of our library catalog, the record every item owned by every Harvard Library with those of another, large and multidisciplinary database of journal, newspaper, and magazine articles.

When you search "everything" you're searching both of these databases together, at once. For better or for worse, "everything" is our system default. 


The broad and panoramic approach to searching HOLLIS can be mind-opening but if you find yourself overwhelmed by either the numbers or types of results your search returns, try one of these options: 


  • Limit your Everything search results set just to the items listed in the LIBRARY CATALOG

Your numbers will immediately get smaller. Keep in mind, though, that the results will be heavily weighted toward book-length studies.


  • Limit your Everything search results set to items that are identified as PEER REVIEWED ARTICLES.

You'll eliminate newspaper and magazine materials as well as books, of course, but you'll also raise the visibility of scholarly journal articles in what displays. 

​Peer-reviewed articles are more generally favored as sources for academic assignments.


  • Think about limiting your results to publications from the last 5, 10, 15, or 20 years.

By doing so you'll get a snapshot of the most recent research trends and scholarly approaches in a field (or around a particular issue). 

Perspectives from the Medical Professions and Public Health


Pub Med

The key resource on biomedical literature used by clinicians and scholars in the U.S., produced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). 

Global Health [first link]

A large, Harvard-licensed  public health database that identifies research and scholarship on all aspects of public health, including international health; it covers the biomedical life sciences, non-communicable diseases, public health nutrition, food safety and hygiene, and much more. :


This Harvard Library-licensed database covers the important journals in the fields of nursing and allied health back to 1937. 

Web of Science [first link]

This Harvard-licensed database is a  curated, richly interdisciplinary collection of peer-reviewed, high-quality scholarly journals published worldwide  over 250 science, social sciences, and humanities disciplines.

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a specific research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit, systematic methods that are selected with a view aimed at minimizing bias, to produce more reliable findings to inform decision-making.

Once you're in the database, look for BROWSE REVIEWS.              

"Child Health" is among the topics you can browse. 


Image above from the collections of the National Library of Medicine, c. 1930.  Part of the Library's online exhibit, Visual Culture and Public Health Posters.  

Sociological, Policy, and Legal Lenses on Child Health


CQ Researcher A database of reports on political and social-policy issues from 1923 to the present. The historical feature allow you to see the evolution of the topic over time and to be able to see alls sides of an idea in debate.  To start searching:  Enter your topic in the search bar or click on the "hamburger" () and see a selection of topics to choose from.  Sort your search from oldest or newest for current conversations or the longer history of a topic.  

CQ Researcher (well-respected journalistic-type overviews of social, political, and cultural issues of the moment)

Sociological Abstracts


Index to Legal Periodicals and Books 


2018 KidsCount Data Book (Annie E. Casey Foundation)

Children's Environmental HealthEnvironmental Protection Agency (key national indicators of child well-being)

March of Dimes/CDC Peristats (free access to maternal and infant health-related data at the US, state, county, and city level)


 EXPERT LIBRARIAN: Diane Sredl a Data Research Librarian for the Harvard Library and the person to consult if you need numbers and aren't sure how to find them. To contact Diane, send your message to


Tools for Locating Full-Text and Managing Your Sources

Google Scholar Settings: One simple change can turn Google Scholar into what's effectively a Harvard database -- with links to the full-text of articles that the library can provide. Here's what to do:  Look to the left of the GS screen and click on the "hamburger" (); then click on .  Look for "Library Links."  Then type Harvard University into the search box and save your choice.  As long as you allow cookies, the settings will keep.  

If you've used NoodleTools or EasyBib in high school  -- or even if you've figured out the the pin and cite options in HOLLIS -- Zotero will take you to a whole new level. 

This free, open source citation management tool makes the process of collecting and organizing citations, incorporating them into your paper, and creating a bibliography or works cited page stress-free and nearly effortless.

It's worth the small investment of time to learn Zotero. A good guide, produced by Harvard librarians, is available here: