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Latin American Library Research Basics

A self-guided learning tool for building research skills in Latin American, Caribbean, Latinx, and Iberian Studies at Tulane University.

3.1. Learning Goals: Navigating Academic Databases

In this module, you will:

  • reflect on major differences between and academic research databases
  • learn how to build effective keyword searches in academic research databases
  • deepen your understanding of how academic research databases work
  • learn to use Boolean and other search operators (AND, OR, NOT, *, "", ?)
  • critically reflect on the problematics of keywords used to describe materials in academic databases

3.2. Academic Research Databases vs. Google

This video from the University of Houston Libraries explains key differences between Google and academic research databases.

Among the points they underscore is that you can use 'natural language'' to search Google, e.g.: Who was the first Black Vice-President of Costa Rica? In other words, you can search as if you were directly asking a question. (Answer, in case you didn't know: Epsy Campbell Barr)

By contrast, research databases do not work with natural language searches, but rather, keywords searches.

Watch this video to learn more and reflect on the differences between a commercial search engine like Google and the research databases available via Tulane University Libraries.


  1. Compare a search in Google vs. Tulane University's Library Search using search terms you think you will use for your research project. How do your results differ? What benefits and drawbacks does each offer?

3.3. Identifying Keywords

Now that you've learned about the importance of keyword searching in academic databases, watch this video tutorial from Tulane University Libraries on how to identify keywords and phrases for your information search:


  1. Write a draft of your research topic, question, or thesis.
  2. Build a bank of keywords to test out in academic research databases.

3.4. What Language Should I Use to Search?

If you're researching Latin America, the Caribbean, or the Iberian Peninsula, many resources will be in languages other than English--mainly Spanish or Portuguese. So, what language should you use to search, if you are able to read languages other than English? Watch this video from The Latin American Library to find out and learn more about the workings of library catalogs and other research databases.

*Note*: this video was made using screenshots from a prior version of the Tulane University Libraries (TUL) website. The fundamentals covered still apply, but TU Library Search now has a different look and configuration.


  1. If you know Spanish, Portuguese, or another regional language of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula, add keywords in those languages to your keyword bank.
  2. Try a keyword in search in Tulane's Library Search-Advanced Search using only English terms, then the other language. How do the results differ?

3.5. Boolean and Other Search Operators

Now that you've learned more about selecting keywords, what is the best way to combine keywords for an effective search?

Boolean and other operators are important for refining your search. Watch this overview from Beloit College Libraries to learn more.

3.6. Variations in Spellings & Names

When researching a given topic, don't forget that your subjects may have variances due to translation and transliteration from languages of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula, and/or modernizations and adaptations of spellings. 

You can account for variations by using the Boolean and other operators you learned about above, and checking to see the standard names and terms by which resources are cataloged.

For example, say you are researching mysticism in the writings of Santa Teresa, also known as Santa Teresa de Ávila, Santa Teresa de Jesús, Saint Teresa, Teresa of Avila, etc. You can account for variations using a search like this: 


Also, once you find a record related to Santa Teresa, you will find in the Creator and/or Subject field that the standardized name used for cataloging is Teresa, of Avila, Saint, 1515-1582:


So, you could also do a Creator OR Subject search using the cataloging term:


Another issue to keep in mind is variations in indigenous language terms. For example, the K'iche' people and language were long referred to in the Latin alphabet as Quiché. The subject heading continues to be spelled Quiché, so it's important to search for both:


Similarly, texts in indigenous languages, like K'iche'', will have variant spellings:

3.7. Sample Search


  1. What the video above, then apply everything you've learned in this module to test different keyword combinations for your research project using Tulane's Library Search-Advanced Search
  2. Identify a resource in Library Search that speaks directly to your research topic. Compare your keywords to those used in the item record's subject headings. Do your keywords differ from the subject headings in Library Search? Adjust your search terms accordingly.

3.8. Keyword Tips for Latinx Studies

People of Latin American, Caribbean, Spanish, and Portuguese descent in the United States are not a monolith. Therefore, no one term will ever fully capture the diversity of identities, ethnicities, nationalities, races, and experiences which are grouped under terms like "Latinx," "Latine," Latino/a," "Hispanic," and "Hispanic-American." Use of these words is contextual and situational.

The very desire for one all-encompassing term to describe this diverse mix of people comes from academic, governmental, activist, and economic impulses and strategies to identify labels for groups--despite the fact that many individuals within those groups do not use or prefer to describe themselves with those terms. 

Here are some essential keywords to keep in mind, depending on the kinds of sources you are looking for:

Latino, Latina, Latin@ Commonly used adjectives in books, book chapters, articles, and mass media that allow gender binaries of masculine (o), feminine (a) and masculine/feminine (@). Latino as an adjective reflects the acceptance of the -o ending in Spanish to describe a group of people that includes men; men and women; or as a default when gender is not specified. Latin@ is used to encompass masculine and feminine.
Latinx, Latine 

Latinx and Latine originated as categories by and for transgender and gender-diverse individuals. They have come into wider use as a form of rejecting masculine/feminine gender binaries when labeling a group that encompasses diverse gender identities. Latine is a more recent development than Latinx that reflects a preference to use the "e" rather than the "x" because it is easier to pronounce in speech. Both tend to be used in progressive and activist-leaning publications, whether academic or popular/ mass media. At present, you are more likely to find Latinx in academic publications and databases than Latine.

Hispanic Term used by the U.S. Government to collect census data, thus a common keyword in demography, politics and media. It is also a term that many use to self-identify, along with the Spanish hispana/o.
Hispanic Americans Key term to use when looking for books, since this continues to be the standard Library of Congress subject heading used to catalog books about Latines in the United States.
Chicano, Chicana,  Chicanx, Chicane

Refers to Mexican-Americans, particularly in relation to activist movements of the 20th century

Mexican-American, Mexican Americans

Cuban-American, Cuban-Americans

Venezuelan-American, Venezuelan-Americans


Hyphenated nationalities are commonly used across publications and in Library of Congress subject headings.
Puerto Rican, Puerto Ricans Commonly used across publications, including Library of Congress subject headings. Also try boricua, which may appear in titles and texts, but not subject headings.

Cubans --- United States

Mexicans --- United States

Venezuelans --- United States

Colombians --- United States


Try subject searches for nationality AND United States when looking for academic resources.
Afro-Latino, Afro-Latina, Afro-Latinx, Afro-Latine Terms used to describe people of both African and Latin American descent. Not a Library of Congress subject heading. 
African-American, African-Americans Library of Congress subject heading that may be used in combination with others for books about Afro-Latines, e.g. African-Americans AND Hispanic-Americans.
Black, Blacks Library of Congress subject heading that may be used in combination with others for books about Afro-Latines, e.g. Blacks AND Hispanic-Americans, Blacks AND Colombia, Blacks AND Brazil...

3.9. Keyword problematics

Language is never neutral.

Behind every database are people--all with distinct backgrounds and biases--who have to make decisions about which subject headings and keywords to use to facilitate your search. 

As highlighted above in the keyword table for Latinx Studies, Library of Congress (LC) subject headings--which many catalogers and indexers use as a standard--may not match the keywords you would intuitively generate or prefer to use for personal and political purposes. Often, LC subject headings generated decades ago no longer align with newly accepted terms. They may even be offensive and racist. Nonetheless, they are still used broadly as a reference. 

Here are a few more examples of the difference between terms you might think to use vs. LC subject headings:

If you're researching... The LC subject heading would be...
Film/ movies/ cinema Motion Pictures
Indigenous peoples/ first nations/ Indians/ indios of Mexico Indians of Mexico
Afro-Brazilians Blacks---Brazil
Undocumented immigrants Illegal Aliens (until 2021), Noncitizens

The article and documentary linked below offer further context on the history and problematics of LC subject headings. The better you understand the decisions that go into organizing information in academic databases, the more effectively you will be able to search--while also maintaining awareness of the systemic forces and politics behind information economies and infrastructures.


  • Read the article and/or watch the documentary linked above and generate 2 discussion questions to bring to class.

3.10. Key Takeaways for Navigating Academic Research Databases

  1. Think critically about the contents, search operators, and algorithms different databases use, and adapt your search terms accordingly
  2. When using a given academic database, do a test search, open a record and see what descriptive language (metadata), the catalogers and indexers use to organize information. Adjust your terms accordingly.
  3. Use "" to search a complete, unbroken phrase, e.g. "Ni una más" 
  4. In many databases, you can use * to stand in for the multiple possible endings of a word, e.g. femini* will search for feminism, feminist, feminismo, feminista, femininity, etc.
  5. Languages: Remember that databases run out of the U.S. will have metadata in English, even if the text itself is in Spanish, Portuguese, or another language.
  6. Search synonyms or similar concepts with an OR search, e.g. (race OR racism OR anti-racism); (environment OR "medio ambiente")
  7. Research is iterative. You will likely need to do multiple rounds of searching and adjusting terms to get the best results.
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