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Classics and Ancient History: effective library research for dissertations: How to search

Online support to assist with planning and conducting your library dissertation research

 

 

To get the best results from online search services you need to input effective searches. 

The databases are not intelligent and will not understand your search topic.  

You need to devise and enter your search in a way that the databases can process to retrieve relevant search results for you.

It is useful to think of this as a three step process:

  1. Identify your search terms
  2. Combine your search terms
  3. Use search techniques to enhance your search

 

 

Search Strategy Worksheet

You can use the Search Strategy Worksheet to plan out and record your search strategy.

Explore the guidance below on these three areas and then test your knowledge with the quiz.

Activity

Try using these search techniques on L'Année Philologique; download the worksheet below and complete the example searches.

1. Identify your search terms

The exercise you conducted to map out your research topic/concepts will also help you produce appropriate keywords.  Think about those topics/concepts and produce lists of keywords that you could use to track down information on those topics.

Think carefully about suitable keywords and synonyms (alternative words that have a similar meaning) that will enable you to find manageable amounts of relevant material - not so many results that they are unmanageable and cause information overload, or so few that you retrieve insufficient information for you needs.

As with mapping out your research concepts, you may find it useful to adopt similar techniques -  e.g. brainstorming, words lists or mind maps to generate your keywords.

Are there any alternative words and/or phrases you should include in your search in order to improve your search results? 

For example:
If you were researching food in the ancient world, you could use the following keywords: food, feast, feasts, feasting etc.

As well as searching for the ancient world, you might also search for antiquity etc.

When you are searching the global literature think about differences in spellings and terminology, and incorporate alternatives into your search strategy. Truncation and wildcard symbols can help with this.

Also think about differing terminology for the same subject. Subject terms and thesauri can help you with this.

Consider whether  your area of research uses subject specific terminology, technical terms or other controlled vocabulary.

Use these specialised terms in your searching to improve your results.

If you do not know the standard terminology then the database subject index or thesaurus may help.

Have acronyms or abbreviations been used in the sources you have read? 

 These can be included in your search terms in order to find matching results. 

Consider whether there are  key thinkers, writers, experts or analysts who are prominent or active in your research area.

It may be worth including these 'names' in your searches. 

Your background reading will prove helpful here.   

If you are searching across long time periods, remember that terminology changes over time.   New words appear, others change meaning so be prepared to reflect this in your search strategy.

2. Combine your search terms

It is possible to use a number of different keywords or search terms in a single search, by using operators. 

Operators link your search terms and define the relationship between them.

This enables more accurate searching and therefore more relevant results being returned. It also saves you time as you don't have to carry out numerous similar searches where just one or two search terms are changed each time.

                           Fig. 1                                                                                                                           Fig. 2

The three most commonly used operators are ANDORNOT.  These are known as Boolean operators. They can be used to broaden or narrow a search and to exclude unwanted search terms and concepts.

You can type these operators in between your search terms (Fig. 1) or you can use the drop down options in the Advanced Search option (Fig. 2). Look at the help pages on the database you want to use for specific guidance.   

Use AND to narrow your search.

Using AND between your search terms narrows your search as it  instructs the database that all your search terms must appear (in any order).

For example: food AND antiquity
will only return results where both words are present

Because all search terms must be present, using AND makes the search more focused. 

 

Use OR to broaden your search.

Using OR between search terms broadens your results as any or all of your search terms can be present.

For example: antiquity OR ancient world
will return results where either one or both of these words are present

It is extremely useful for finding synonyms or related concepts.

Using OR  enables you to carry out a number of similar searches in one go, saving you time.

Use NOT to narrow your search.

Using NOT narrows your search as it instructs the database to ignore results that contain particular words.

For example: "red figure vase" NOT Epiktetos
will return results that include social media but do not  include twitter

NOT  tends to be used less than the And and OR operators. 

Use it with care as you may exclude useful articles which cover a range of topics of relevance to you.

3. Use search techniques to improve your search

You can use search techniques to help improve your searching. By applying these techniques, you can increasereduce or improve the relevancy of your search results, making it easier to access the right materials. 

Truncation is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings.

To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.

The database will return results that include any ending of that root word.

The asterisk * symbol is most commonly used for truncation. However, check out the help screens as  !, ?, or # may also be used.

For example:

Delphi* will find Delphi, Delphic

Wildcards are similar to truncation but they are used to substitute for a single letter or no letter in a word.

They are useful for irregular plurals and for British/American English spellings.

They broaden your search by including variant word spellings.

The question mark symbol is most commonly used. However, check out the help screens as  ! , *, or # may also be used. 

For example:

wom?n will find woman and women

Proximity searching can help to both increase or narrow your results. It can increase your results when "phrase searching" is too restrictive.

 

References with your keywords in will be retrieved anywhere within the reference or document.You can specify how many words away the two terms should be by carrying out a proximity search.

Use a tilde (~), with the designated maximum number of characters you would like to have between the two words and the databases will retrieve all variations of results, up to and including that number of characters.

Proximity search: "enter phrase"~n

For example:

"Dephi* oracle"~5

Phrase searching is the most limiting technique as it is used to specify that your terms must appear next to each other, and in the order you specify.

Phrase searching is commonly achieved by surrounding your phrase with quotation marks.

Always check the Database Help screens, as some databases may use different symbols.

Phrase searching examples:

"Amasis painter"

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