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African Studies Training


The guidance below can be applied to all information retrieval routes of your research journey, including the iDiscover catalogue, archive catalogues, Google Scholar, online bibliographies, citation indexes etc. 

I'm paying particular attention further down this page to databases curated by the Electronic Collection Management team via:

and other resources curated by librarians across Cambridge via:

Effective Searching

How do you identify which topics, and therefore which keywords to use to answer your research question?    

Which types of print or electronic resources are you most likely to achieve results from when you search?


Please look at your individual research questions and take 15 mins to identify what the main concepts and topics are.   

Once you’ve broken your research question down into the key concepts and topics, think about breaking those down further in to sub-topics to give you an idea of your initial search strategy.  By doing this you will have now created a list of:

  • keywords 
  • phrases 
  • synonyms and alternative spellings of your concepts and topics 
  • date ranges of particular significance
  • main protagonists 
  • key resources to examine (i.e. official publications, conferences, diaries, correspondence, newspapers etc.)


  • Use a thesaurus for synonyms.
  • Try using a Mind Map or a Concept Map to capture your thoughts and structure your research plan. See the following boxes on Mind Mapping (including software links, blog entries, book titles, and a video tutorial) & how to apply these concepts when performing your advanced searching.

Video Tutorial on the Mind Map Process with Tony Buzan

Further Resources on Mind Maps & Concept Maps

MindMeister - mind maps for students blogpost

15 Creative Mind Maps for Students -  Blogpost by Raphaela Brandner from the MindMeister (software) blog.

You can create a free account with MindMeister for up to 3 free Mind Maps.  

Wikipedia Mind Map article screenshot

Wikipedia Mind Map entry

Buzan Study Skills book cover

Buzan's study skills : mind maps, memory techniques, speed reading / Tony Buzan ; consultant editor, James Harrison.

Available at African Studies Library for Click & Collect

Visualising Social Science Research - book cover

Visualizing social science research maps, methods & meaning / Johannes Wheeldon and Mauri K. Ahlberg.

Available online via SAGE Research Methods Core 

Mind map software - Wikipedia entry

Tables of Mind Map software - free and proprietary, via Wikipedia entry

Boolean Operators

  • AND : Used to narrow a search and retrieve records containing all of the words it separates.  e.g. adolescents AND children will only find records containing both these words. 

  • OR:  Used to broaden a search and retrieve records containing any of the words it separates, e.g. adolescents OR children will find records containing adolescents only, children only, or both words.  

  • NOT: Used to narrow a search and retrieve records that do not contain the term following it, e.g. adolescents NOT children will find records that contain adolescents, but will not contain the word children.  

  • (): Use brackets to 'nest' your Boolean search parameters, you can use multiple groupings for one search. Nesting lets you group your search terms and dictates the order in which they are searched, everything within brackets is searched first. e.g. ((color OR colour) AND (decorate OR decoration)) NOT (art OR architecture)


Watch the quick video below to understand the concepts.

Shared from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Library YouTube channel

Wildcards, Truncation & Phrase Searching


When there is a possibility of a variety of spellings use the wildcard function (in most cases a question mark to replace the letter that could be variable) when you search e.g.:

  • organi?ation will pick up on both "organization" and "organisation" across your results. 
  • wom?n will pick up on "woman", "women" and "womxn"


Use of truncation is useful when trying to find the most relevant information (especially when doing your broadest search at the beginning) e.g. to capture a word that could have multiple endings.

  • The symbol for truncation is usually an * at the point where the ending of the word could change.
  • For example, music* would find articles with the term music/musical/musically/musician/musicians/musicality in them. 
  • Using truncation will help you complete your search faster because you will not have to manually type in and search every variation of the word.


Use Quotation marks to perform phrase searching for known/established phrases

  • e.g. "coming of age" "gender identity" etc.

Watch the quick video below to understand the concepts.

Shared from the John M. Pfau Library YouTube channel

Proximity Searching

Proximity searching is another valuable tool to refine your search and retrieve the most relevant resources.

  • Adj: Using the word 'adj' is a very effective way of searching which allows you to pick up items where two words are near to each other in that particular order. You can specify how near or far from each other you want the words to be. i.e. adj3 means the two words that you are searching for are within 3 words of each other. 

  • Near or N: Using the word 'Near' is similar to the 'adj' proximity search, however the words will not appear in a particular order, they just have to be 'near' each other within the article.  Similarly use a number after near, e.g. NEAR4 to indicate how near you want the words to appear.

  • ATLEAST: Used to retrieve keywords appearing at least an indicated number of times e.g. ATLEAST5.  This is particularly useful in determining the focus of an article.  The higher the number you use, the more mentions in the article of your topic or keywords.


Which this short video which explains the concepts using a database search

Boolean & Proximity Operators for Experts

The following link leads you to a table explaining all Boolean and Proximity Operators in forensic detail. 

Disclaimer! This resource is aimed at researchers at an advanced level!

Next Steps

Now you have identified your key concepts and topics (hopefully by using the Mind Map method), these form the basis of your advanced keyword and subject heading searches.


  • Remember that terminology for grouping keywords in to subject headings to describe books (in catalogues) in particular, may be dated and are applied in many cases subjectively by librarians. 
  • Keep testing your keywords and phrases to see which bring back the most relevant results to improve your effective searching skills.
  • Databases of modern material tend to use modern terminology for grouping materials in to subject areas.


Take your searching skills to the next level by using:

  • Boolean Operators
  • Wildcards, Truncation & Phrase Searching
  • Proximity Searching
  • Filters & Limits

See the boxes on the rest of this LibGuide to guide you.


See the boxes at the end of the page to further your knowledge, develop your search strategy and use your new skills!

A-Z Databases

Where to find?

What does it cover?

  • Over 1000 subscribed to and Open Access databases, electronic resources and bibliographies.

Free trials and new resources.

  • Check out popular databases, free trials, and new resources on the right hand sidebar of the A-Z Databases LibGuide.

How to search?

  • You can browse in your subject area by using the All Subjects drop down menu to see a list of the most relevant databases in your area; 
  • If you know a particularly useful resource you can search by name in the Search Databases search box; 
  • Or you can use the A-Z index located at the bottom of the top bar.

    screenshot of A-Z Databases top bar

Use the icons. 

  • You can hover over the "i" (information), or question mark icons for a brief synopsis of what each database covers, and where to go for more help on how to use a particular database.
  • A key icon denotes that the item is a paid for resource, and may require you to login via Raven if you are not already. 
  • The globe icon indicates the item is a website openly available on the internet.  

Filters & Limits

Look out for limits and filters when you use online catalogues and databases for searching to ensure your results are more concise, for example:

  • Type of document (article - abstract/full text; conference paper; dissertation, newspaper, manuscript etc.) 

  • Date 

  • Language 

  • Company 

  • Author

  • Peer-reviewed

  • Language

Takeaway Points

  •  Define your search as clearly as you can before starting.  

  •  Write down a list of keywords and synonyms.  

  •  Include date periods.

  •  Investigate using a thesaurus to gather further synonyms.  

  •  Plan where you can combine your searches to broaden or narrow your results using OR, AND and NOT.  

  •  Plan where you can use wildcards and truncation to make your list of searches more concise.  

  •  See if you can make use of proximity searching to optimise your search terms.  

  •  Look at the limitation options available in the database to see if you can use them to focus your search results. 

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