You have an assignment and you're about to start your research. How do you go about this? To start with, you'll need to choose a topic, then analyse it to formulate search phrases that you can then use to search online catalogues, databases and resources.

Example of an assignment topic

Assignment keywords.png

Begin by identifying any references included (highlighted in red in the example above) - it is always a good idea to read those.

Keyword Searching


To begin with, identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives in your assignment topic - these will form the basis of your keyword search. In the example above, keywords have highlighted in bold and underline: art, imitation, nature, classical contemporary, aesthetics. See if there are any natural or logical groupings. In the above example, the groupings are:

Art imitation nature
Classical contemporary aesthetics

These groupings will form the basis of your search phrases.

Frequently keywords will be very generic and you will need to combine them with other keywords to formulate a search phrase.

These keywords can be geographic, temporal and material or refer to format. For example, you may be writing an assignment on symbolism in Christian art. Immediately you have three words for a search phrase:

"Symbolism", "Christian", "Art"

To this, you can add a temporal keyword or phrase: medieval, Byzantine, Renaissance, or 4th century, 19th century, etc.

You can also add a geographic keyword: European, Spanish, Celtic.

You may be interested in particular materials: stone, wood, oils.

You might choose to focus on a particular type of art (format): painting, sculpture, architecture.

You could also add a specific type of symbol: fish, crucifix or cross, lamb.

Combining them

There are ways of combining these that will be more effective than if you just type all of them into a search box on Google Scholar, Trove, or one of the catalogues or databases.

For example, to search for Christian art, place the phrase in double quotation marks as follows: "Christian art". This tells the search engine that you want that kept as a phrase. Otherwise it will look for all occurrences of the word "Christian" and all occurrences of the word "art".

Boolean operators

You can also add Boolean operators to include or exclude certain keywords. The Boolean operators are:


Capitalising these words tells the search engine that these are Boolean operators, otherwise it ignores them.

AND tells the search engine to include only documents that include the words both before and after the AND.

OR is used when you are using synonyms in your search phrase, for example Catholic can be used as a synonym for Christian. Your search phrase would then include Christian OR Catholic.

If using OR, bracket your search phrase: (Christian OR Catholic).

NOT before a word or phrase tells the search engine to omit any documents with any occurrence of that word or phrase.

In Google Scholar (and Google), the AND and NOT should be replaced by plus or minus signs. When using the minus sign, it must immediately precede the word without any spaces.

As an example, you could then use the search phrase:

Symbolism AND "Christian art" AND fish NOT lamb

The Google equivalent would be:

Symbolism + "Christian art" + fish -lamb

The School's library also has books of art terms for borrowing:

Dictionary of Art Terms
Dictionary of Art Terms

Critical Terms for Art History
Critical Terms for Art History

Illustrated Dictionary of Art Terms
Illustrated Dictionary of Art Terms

Key Terms in Art, Craft & Design
Key Terms in Art, Craft & Design

If you need or encounter more detailed or esoteric terms, an excellent starting point is the Getty Institute's Art and Architecture Thesaurus, which is considered the most comprehensive listing of art and architecture terms. Click the logo below:

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