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ARTH 384: Treasures of Medieval Islamic Art: Developing a Search Strategy

This guide is focused on the history of the art and architecture of the medieval Islamic world in regions that border the Mediterranean basin—from The Levant (Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan), Spain and North Africa to Egypt and Anatolia (Tu

Understanding Keywords

Search databases using keywords, such as concepts or subject phrases, that are linked together by and, or, not used to to identify articles and sources.   Once you have identified your topic, selecting your keywords is pretty simple.  

  1.  Divide your topic into concepts/segments/pieces.

    In the question, "What is the relationship among Islam, religious worship and architecture?," the concepts are: Islam, religious worship, and architecture. 

  2. Brainstorm for synonyms and related terms.

    You will need to translate these terms to keywords later when you are searching databases for articles and sources. Even if a combination of words works well in one database, you may have to change keywords to find results in another database. 



religious worship


Related terms:







sacred space

3. Create your search by combining your keywords using and, or, not.

    • And is used to narrow your search. Results returned will contain both sets of keywords.
    • Or is used to expand your search.  Results returned will return either keyword. 
    • Not will limit your search, and will exclude a keyword from the results. 

         You can also use parentheses to combine your search strings:

                     (Islam or Islamic) and (religious worship or prayer)

4.  Follow the database-specific language.

As you do your searching, keep track of the words that appear in the detailed descriptions, or records, of your results list in the fields that will be labeled with headings such as subjects, descriptors, or subject headings.   These synonyms and related terms are the specific vocabulary used to describe your search term in that database or discipline.  Using these in your search can often improve your search results by making it more accurate and efficient/less time.

Tips and Tricks

Use quotation marks to search for exact phrases

Boolean Operators

  • AND narrows your results (because all search terms must be present in the resulting records).
    Ex: bridges AND history AND civil engineering (the black triangle in the middle of the Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search).
    Note: Most search engines and databases will assume your search terms are connected with AND.
  • OR broadens your results (because search results may contain either or both search terms).
    Ex: university OR college OR higher education (the entire Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search).
    Note: OR is especially useful if your search terms have synonyms.
  • NOT excludes results with whichever search term follows it.
    Ex: mercury NOT planet (the dark green section in the Venn diagram represents the result set for this search).
    The order of your search terms matters when using NOT (results with the second search term will be excluded).   

Search for words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other.

  • Proximity operators are composed of a letter (N or W) and a number (to specify the number of words). The proximity operator is placed between the words that are to be searched
  • Near Operator (N) – N5 finds the words if they are within five words of one another regardless of the order in which they appear.
  • Within Operator (W) – W8 finds the words if they are within eight words of one another and in the order in which you entered them. Ex: the results for tax W8 reform would include “tax reform” but would not include “reform of income tax”.


  • Truncation is represented by an asterisk (*)
  • Enter the root of a search term and replace the ending with an *
  • Ex: comput* finds results with computer, computing, computation, computational, etc.
  • Truncation can also be used between words (ex: a midsummer * dream will return results that contain the exact phrase, “a midsummer night’s dream”)


  • A wildcard is represented by a question mark (?) or a pound sign (#)
  • Using ? as a wildcard will only return results in which the wildcard is replaced by another character (ex: ne?t will find results containing neat, nest or next, but it will not find results with net)
  • Using # as a wildcard will return results with or without an extra character (ex: ne#t will find results containing neat, nest, or next as well as results containing net)

Subject Headings

Using keywords to search for materials in the library catalog can be hit or miss. Library books are assigned official terminology known as "subject headings." The are live links that you can click on, for example, if you do an advanced search in the library catalog you can use the drop-down menu to select "subject" instead of "keyword" and enter "Islamic painting." Once you hit enter or the "Search" button it will take you to all the items in the catalog assigned this subject heading. This is a great way to locate a lot of research materials at once on your topic, however, with a subject heading like "Islamic painting" you will get books from all periods rather than only medieval times.


Select List of Subject Headings:

Islamic illumination of books and manuscripts

Islamic painting

Islamic art and symbolism

Art and philosophy -- Islamic countries

Islamic art

Islamic art objects -- Exhibitions

Islam and architecture

Architectural inscriptions

Islamic art metal-work

Art, Medieval -- Iran

Islamic Shrines


More on Boolean Operators!

Boolean operators allow you to combine your keywords to create a search that the databases can use to retrieve the results you need. The words AND, OR are the most commonly used Boolean operators. The third is NOT, which can be difficult to use because it might exclude useful results.

AND combines your search terms and looks for them together in search result. Example: A search for Muhammad AND Prophet will retrieve records that have both keywords: Muhammad and Prophet.

OR separates your search terms, finding records that contain either keyword. Example: A search for Muhammad OR Prophet will retrieve records all the records that contain either of the search terms as well as records with both of the search terms.

NOT finds records that only have the first keyword, but will exclude records that have both keywords or just the second keyword. A search for Muhammad NOT Prophet will find records only containing Muhammad and will exclude records that also include Prophet. This boolean operator is only useful when you want to exclude a topic that is often associated with your first keyword. For example, if you only wanted articles about Muhammad the prophet excluding the boxer Muhammad Ali, the search would be Muhammad  NOT Ali. Just remember that this type of search is very narrow and might exclude records that also include information on your topic.

Types of Information

One of the questions you will ask yourself during the search process is What type of information will best help me answer my questions?  Thinking about the type of information you are looking for will determine how you search for that information, where you look for it, and what tools you use.

Examples of different types of information and where to find it include:

You may also want to consider sources outside of your traditional library such as archives and Special Collections, interviewing knowledgeable individuals, businesses, etc.

The Circuit

When is a Primary Source a Secondary Source?

Whether something is a primary or secondary source often depends upon the topic and its use.

A biology textbook would be considered a secondary source if in the field of biology, since it describes and interprets the science but makes no original contribution to it.

On the other hand, if the topic is science education and the history of textbooks, textbooks could be used a primary sources to look at how they have changed over time.