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Library Guides

School of Arts Library Guide: Search techniques


This page provides help with advanced search techniques for finding books, articles and other information sources. It is aimed at final year undergraduate students, but other students may find it useful too.

First of all - look at your reading list

Most modules have online reading lists which link to essential reading for the module, and provide suggestions for further reading.  These are a useful starting point for researching assignments.

When students come into the library for help, a surprising number have not considered the reading list, and sometimes all I do is point out all the sources on it which are relevant to their topic.  Even if you are doing a dissertation, it may still be worth revisiting your old reading lists to see if there are books that may be relevant.

Expand my results

In the results screen on Library Search select “Expand My Results” to reveal results from journals we don’t have online.  They may be available in print in the library or you can get them via the Inter-library loan (ILL) service.  ILL is free at Westminster - follow the ‘ILL request’ link at the top of Library Search.

FOREST LOG scheme for generating keywords

FOrms of words / Stemming

Consider different forms of a word (e.g. photographs, photo, photos, photographic, photography).  Library search supports ‘stemming’ so you can account for different forms using an asterisk (e.g. photo* retrieves all forms listed above).

RElated terms

Consider related terms.  For example, for photography ‘art’ is related, and also ‘pictorial’ (see subject terms below).

Synonymous Terms / Boolean operators

Consider synonyms. If you search for “film” use the term “cinema” as well.  Library search supports Boolean searches, so if you search for film OR cinema (just as it is written here) sources that use either term will be retrieved.  

Include your search terms in brackets, and you can add terms: 

  • (film OR cinema) women
  • (film OR cinema) (women OR feminism)

LOG (Ladder of Generalisation)

Consider using broader or narrower terms in your search: as well as searching for Britain and Film, you might search for Scotland and Film, for example; or perhaps Europe and Film

  • Note, it is normally more useful to use nouns rather than verbs (i.e. Britain rather than British).

The FOREST LOG scheme is described in Student success; get through, do well

Problems with keyword searching

Not all relevant sources for an assignment will come up in a keyword search.  You should consider at least some of the following:

  • Look at your reading lists for relevant sources (this is probably the first thing you should do)
  • Consider sources that you have read previously that might be relevant
  • Browse in relevant sections in the library, or use the browse feature on Library Search.  Take books off the shelves, look at the table of contents and index
  • Ask your lecturers to recommend sources
  • Look at broad textbooks for your subject, or subject-specific reference sources to get an overview of a topic and make a note of any key sources that are referred to.

Subject headings

Subject headings are included for most resources on Library Search and other databases, and expert searchers take note of them.  Look out for them in the description of resources, particularly books, and utilise them in your searches.  

Some unusual ones include:

  • “motion pictures” for film, 
  • “pictorial” for books of photographs 
  • “other (philosophy)” for the philosophical concept of ‘the other’

In the advanced search on Library Search you can limit your search to this field to provide a more targeted search.

Snowball technique

When you are reading for an assignment, take note of the sources used by the authors you are reading - this is often the best way of finding relevant sources. 

Citation searching

The “Cited by” feature on Google Scholar is similar to snowball technique except it highlights the books/articles that have cited the work you are researching (rather than cited in it).

Phrase searching

Another useful tip is to include a phrase in quotation marks.  This limits your results to resources that contain that phrase and not a phrase that contains the same words but is quite different: 

  • “Pooh Bear” does not return ‘bear pooh’
  • “Late photography” does not return “late nineteenth century photography”

Author searching

If you find a good source look to see what else they have written