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Visual Arts and Photography

Planning your search

Before you begin looking for resources for your assignment or project, focus on planning your search strategy. A little time spent on this now will save you time and frustration later. Here are the steps:

Summarise your question or topic

This sounds obvious, but to begin searching you should be clear about the topic of your assignment or project.

If this is for an assessment, ensure you read your assessment instructions carefully. You may already have received a topic, a statement or clues for search terms to guide your search.

Write down a summary of your topic and check that it's clear and focused. This will help guide you in the sort of information you are looking for.

Identify the keywords

Highlight, underline or circle the keywords or main concepts in your summary. These words can help you build your search strategy and set parameters.

Think of alternative search words for each concept

Authors will use different terminology for the same concept so it's important to think of alternative words for each of your concepts. These can be synonyms, related words, abbreviations, acronyms and other words that are specific to your topic.

For synonyms, refer to a thesaurus (such as and see what other words could be used.

Doing this will ensure that you don't miss out on any useful articles that you might otherwise miss if you only use one or two search terms.

Be clever

Now you have a strong basis for your search, it doesn't stop there.

Improve your search strategy using special characters and symbols to create clever search strings. There is more detail about these advanced techniques in the section below.

Document your search

This will help you properly plan your search and remind you of some of the search techniques.

Download the planner below and follow the steps to create your own search strategy.

Search Planner (DOC, 1MB)

Advanced search techniques

Use these advanced search techniques to improve your search results.

Phrase searching narrows a search to show results that contain an exact phrase.

This is useful when you want to search for a certain string of words.

To conduct a phrase search, add double quote marks around two or more words you want to search for.

For example: searching for "portrait photography" will only return records that contain this exact term. The search will not return results where the word "portrait" or "photography" appear separately.

Truncation and wildcard searching broadens a search to show results that include words with variant endings or spellings.

To conduct a truncation search, use an asterix character * to indicate where the variant ending starts.

For example, searching for photograph* will return records that contain any of these words:  photograph, photographic, photography, photographer.

Wildcard searching, using the symbol '?", is useful for words that have slight differences in spelling e.g. 'women' and 'woman', 'organisation' and 'organization'.  Insert the ? to replace the variant letter to retrieve both versions of a word, e.g. wom?n; organi?ation.



Boolean searching allows you to combine keywords with operators (such as AND, OR, NOT) to produce more relevant results

Using the word AND between two search terms narrows a search to show results containing both terms.

Conversely, using the word OR between two terms broadens a search to show results containing either term.

Using NOT will narrow your search by excluding certain results from your search, however as the video on the next tab shows it should be used with care as this technique can remove relevant results.

Video: What are boolean operators (1:36)

Search examples

Below are some examples showing search strings that combine the techniques described above.

These were created using Advanced Search from the library homepage, but you could also implement the same techniques using Advanced Search in other databases. 

   Click the hotspot icons in the search screenshots below to reveal more information about each part of the search strategy.

Example 1:

You need to find articles that discuss the photographer, Cindy Sherman, and her work. Remember the steps outlined above when first planning your search?  Unpack your topic and break it up into the different concepts. Then think of some related words for each concept.
A literature search using techniques such as boolean (AND, OR), phrase searching (using quotation marks) and truncation (using the asterisk) might look like this:

In the above search example, the photographer’s name has been combined with the style of photography that she produces. The connector ‘OR’ has been used to combine two alternative words which will broaden the search results – “portrait photography” OR portraiture.

There may not be many (if any) published articles on new artists or little-known artists. In this case, it is best to search for broad themes or principles within photography and apply them to the photographer you are researching.

Example 2:

You need to find articles discussing David Hockney's work.  Here's what a search might look like - note the use of one search box per concept and its related terms.

In the above search example, the artist’s name has been combined with two types of visual art that he is known for producing. The connector ‘OR’ has been used to broaden the search to two forms of art – drawings OR paintings - along with a more generic label for these, 'works', which authors may use instead.

It's a good idea to include as many relevant terms as you can think of to increase your chances of getting relevant articles.