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Art History and Visual Culture: Finding and using library resources: 4. How do I search effectively?


To get the best results when searching online sources, you need to carry out effective searches. You need to plan and enter your keywords in a way that the databases can process so that they 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 
For effective online searching you need to invest time up front to develop a search strategy using a range of search techniques.

1. Identify your search terms

Before you start searching, spend some time defining your research topic. Ask yourself, what is it that you want to find out? What search terms or keywords will find this information?

Use whatever technique works best for you - e.g. brainstorming, words lists or mind maps etc. can help you think around your topic and identify all possible search concepts and terms. 



Take a look at the short video to help you begin:

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 the French symbolist movement in theatre you could use the following keywords: French, symbolist, theatre

You could also use the following alternative keywords:

France,  symbolism, drama, performance, play, production  etc.


Think about differences in spellings and terminology, and incorporate alternatives into your search strategy. 

For example:   theatre (British spelling)  vs. theater (American English spelling) 

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

For example:  holiday vs. vacation / autumn vs. fall

Does your area of research use 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. 

For example: 

19th Century OR Nineteenth century

Great Britain OR GB, United Kingdom OR UK

Who are the key thinkers, writers and experts  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 time periods, particularly 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.

For example:  

The First World War was often referred to as the Great War or the World War at the time. 

However, once the Second World War had started (and after) , the earlier war was also referred to as the First World War or World War 1.

Once you have identified your keywords and synonyms, it is really useful to organise them by concept or theme. This will enable you to combine your keywords and carry out complex searches in one go.

You may find it useful to use a table or circle. For example:

“What was the importance of puppets/marionettes in the writing and practice of artists associated or contemporaneous with the Symbolist movement? Focus on the work of Alfred Jarry or Maurice Maeterlinck”.

The keywords have been organised by concept.In this case we are focusing on a type of performance, it’s association with a particular style and a specific author. As you can see, the keywords have been picked from the essay title itself but you can expand on them.

2. Combine your search terms

You can use a a number of different keywords in a single search, by using operators. 

The most commonly used operators are AND, OR and NOTThese are known as Boolean operators.

Combining keywords:

  • results in more accurate searching and therefore more relevant results being returned
  • 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

Watch the video below for tips on how to combine search terms. 

Databases usually process the Boolean operators in a logical order.

If you use a combination of AND and OR operators in one search, use  brackets (parentheses) to group the OR words together so that your search is processed correctly.

For example:

If you want to find information on puppets and the Symbolists, or puppets and Alfred Jarry you would use this instruction:

puppet AND (Symbolists OR Alfred Jarry)

  • This will search for puppets and Symbolists as well as puppets and Alfred Jarry

If you do not use the parentheses and search using the following:

puppets AND Symbolists OR Alfred Jarry, your search will be processed as:

  • puppets and Symbolists as one search
  • OR Alfred Jarry as a secondary search

This means that your search results containing Alfred Jarry would not be linked in any way to puppets.

Imagine you are looking for reviews or analysis of postmodern experimental theatre. A typical search may look like this:

​Fig. 1                                                                                                                          Fig. 2                               

ANDORand NOT 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.   

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 to the right materials. For more, see the Search tips guide.

Phrase searching specifies that your terms must appear next to each other, and in the order you specify i.e. the exact phradse that you have types in.

This technique allows you to quickly remove less relevant results from your search as most normal keyword searching looks for any instance of any keywords in any order or any location within the text. 

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

Phrase searching examples:

"fun palaces"

"Cabaret Voltaire"

Tip: Some databases may use different symbols so check the database "Help" options if using quotation marks doesn't work. 

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:
     Dada* will find Dada, Dadaist, Dadaists, Dadaism etc.


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
     styli?ation will find stylisation and stylization

What are database fields?

Records in library catalogues and online databases are made up of fields containing pieces of bibliographic information which describe the item in detail.

Why use field searching?

Field searching makes your search more focused.  If you run a standard keyword search, databases usually search against the full database record. This leads to a very broad search, with high numbers of results. Field searching returns more relevant results as the search instruction is more precise.


A keyword search for William Shakespeare will find items written by William Shakespeare as well as items that are about Shakespeare and his work.  

An Author Search for William Shakespeare would only find items written by William Shakespeare and is a more focused search.

You will usually need to use the Advanced Search option to access the field searching options.  

You can combine multiple fields using the boolean ANDORNOT operators.

Search techniques Quiz

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