Most online search engines and databases will work best if you have pre-planned ‘keywords’ to search with, rather than typing in a whole sentence or copying and pasting research questions.
If you have a specific essay to write you could extract the key terms from the essay question and use these.
Looking at this question as an example:
“In what ways has the post-Cold War period seen a resurgence of ‘liberal internationalism’? How does it compare to the ‘liberal internationalism’ of the 1920s and, in your view, is this new ‘liberal internationalism’ also doomed to fail? Illustrate your argument with concrete examples.”
The question is asking you to compare liberal internationalism across two eras and to illustrate with examples. To search for information you will need to identify the nouns (highlighted in orange). These are used as subject terms when the item is added to a catalogue or database.
Isolate the nouns from an essay question and use these to search in Library Search and individual databases. So these might include:
If you find that you are getting fewer results than you had expected when searching for information with your selected keywords you may need to consider other ways of describing your topic.
Some databases will contain a thesaurus in which 'preferred' terms will be listed. These are the subject headings which have been used to classify the articles and can be more efficient to search with.
Thinking about the essay question above one of the main keywords was:
If this term doesn't retrieve many results think about which other keywords would be useful and make sure you have a real understanding of what ‘liberal internationalism’ actually means – you could look at specific examples of ‘liberal internationalism’ – the places it’s occurred (Sierra Leone, Kosovo), the leaders involved (Clinton, Blair). And relate it back to the ‘liberal internationalism’ of the 1920s that emerged from the aftermath of WW1, e.g. the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson.
You might find it helpful to use a mind map to plan your research and note down the keywords you've decided on.You can add connected subject words and alternative keywords, names of important authors and ideas to it as your research progresses. Imagine you were writing an essay on the British Media and how they are reporting Climate Change.This would be your central topic.Subtopics might include newspapers, radio, television, etc. And these themselves are topics that can be further subdivided, e.g. newspapers into tabloid/broadsheet, then individual titles.You could also break Climate Change down into several related terms and topics.
There are lots of different types of software available that will generate mind maps for you – these can look clearer and more structured than hand-written notes, and can be fun to use and easily stored online.
The example above was created using the website Bubbl.us.
To create precise online searches and avoid information overload you can use "Boolean operators" to combine your keywords. These will work with most databases. Many databases will also offer an advanced search function which allows you to easily construct searches.
Combining your keywords with AND acts to refine your search. Results will only be retrieved that contain both these keywords in them.
If you wanted to find information about photography you might start by entering ‘photography’ as a keyword in a database. You are likely to end up with hundreds of article results so you’ll need to consider refining the search by combining ‘photography’ with another topic
e.g. photography AND landscape
Your results will then be restricted to those that contain both those terms.
Combining your keywords with OR acts to broaden your search. Results will be retrieved that contain either of your keywords in them. Using OR is useful for alternative spellings and synonyms, to make sure you maximise your results and don’t miss relevant information. For example, you could search with both English and American spellings or by similar topics.
city OR urban
colour OR color
Combining your keywords with NOT acts to exclude an unwanted search term. Any results that contain the keyword following NOT will be left out. Use NOT very carefully as you don’t want to exclude articles that might be of use to you.
If you were researching the history of the British town, Rochester you might get results that included information about Rochester in the state of New York, USA too. To prevent this, you might search with the following:
Rochester NOT USA
Exact phrase searching : “ ”
To search for a specific phrase enclose your keywords in quotation marks: e.g. “pop art”
To search with the stem of a word that may have several endings, use a “wildcard,” usually an asterisk (*), though some search engines use other symbols.
e.g. paint* This will include painting, paintings, painter, painters etc
Parentheses (using brackets)
It is also possible to combine several operators together to construct a very specific and advanced search. Most databases will treat the AND operator with precedence in a search. If you want to override this you will need to group keywords using parentheses (brackets). Keywords in brackets will be treated as a unit.
(city OR urban) AND photography
(city OR urban) AND (photography OR paint*)
A note about Library Search
You can use Boolean operators with Library Search to increase the efficiency of your search however Library Search also uses a special relevancy algorithm to retrieve results. This means that it does not work in exactly the same way as the subject specific databases. You can read more here.
Watch this demo for some tips on how to use Library Search effectively