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Introduction to library research in the arts: Keyword searching

An introduction to research concepts and techniques for University of Redlands students in fine, literary and performing arts, developed as an Open Educational Resource (OER)

Learning objectives

  • Find relevant results through keyword searching.

Question to consider

  • How do you know when you have found relevant information online?

How keyword searching works

An internet search for "How does keyword searching work?"

Keyword searching is the most basic type of search strategy, so we'll examine it in depth.

You develop a list of terms related to your topic and enter them into a database or search engine website. The website takes the terms you inputted and tries to match them against its index (a list of all the words in all the items that it contains).

If there are matches, the website uses an algorithm (a set of rules about how to make decisions) to sort the matching items in some way, such as by date of publication or relevance to your topic.

Finally, the website displays the search results, a list of all the items that matched the search criteria in the proper order.

How can you tell whether results are relevant?

Skim over your list of results to see whether they are relevant to your topic and the questions you are trying to answer through the search.

Results that are books will often have a table of contents or a summary of what the book is about.

Results that are articles will usually have an abstract (a short summary written by the author) summarizing the purpose of the study, the methods used and the main findings.

Here are examples of a book, a dissertation and a journal article that came up in a search for "restorative justice in California high schools." Examine the records. Are they relevant to the research topic? Why or why not?

What if you can't find it?

When you get irrelevant search results in a library database, read the result set to try to understand why results were included, rather than simply rejecting the search.

Remember that your research question often sits at the intersection of several different concepts. Results usually appear irrelevant when they don't address all of the concepts at once. However, even partially relevant results could still help you learn about your topic.

Venn diagram showing that in our case study, we were looking for sources at the intersection of three separate concepts: "restorative justice", "high schools" and "California."

For example, you could use a case study of restorative justice in a Louisiana high school to learn about issues and challenges that are also experienced in California high schools.

Often students spend too much time searching for the "perfect" source that has everything they need, when they would be better served by finding solid sources on each concept and pulling together what they have learned in their own words.

Nevertheless, if you are repeatedly getting too many irrelevant results, you will probably want to revise your search. Three ways to do that are by changing the scope of a search, using Boolean operators, and changing search terms.

Change the scope of a search

Illustration of how to change the scope of a search. Pull down the drop down menu next to a search term and choose the type of search. Here we chose a Title search for "California."

To change the scope of your search, pull down the drop down menu next to a search box and select the type of search you want to run. Here we changed a search that would match anywhere in the record ("any field") to a search that will only match on words in the Title.

You may need to use critical thinking to try to reason out how to change your search. Here, I reasoned that researchers who focused their study of restorative justice on California schools might mention that limitation in the title of their article. So I changed the scope to require "California" to be present in the title.

Use boolean operators

You can use the Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT to make searches more precise. All library search interfaces support these operators.

Use different search terms

Earlier in this guide, we discussed the value of keeping a list of search terms as you learn more about your topic. You can draw on terms from your list to modify your search.

Remember the common patterns we discussed:

  • synonyms (other ways of saying the same thing)
  • broader terms (bigger concepts that your idea is an example of)
  • narrower terms (smaller and more specific concepts that are part of your idea)

I put this strategy last, because each time you change your search terms, you have told the search engine to generate a completely different set of results. You may need to spend time skimming over the list of results again to determine if they are relevant. As you get more comfortable with your topic and with doing research in general, this kind of reading will come more easily to you.

Activity: You try it!

Try running some searches on your topic and evaluating the result set. How can you improve the results that you got, without changing to a different database?

Key points

  • Keyword searching works by matching your search terms against words in the items that are indexed.
  • You have to read search results to know whether they are relevant to your topic.
  • Three ways to improve your keyword searches are:
    • Changing the scope of your search
    • Using Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT)
    • Changing your search terms