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Humanities - Postgraduate and Research Support: Search Techniques

Post-graduate library guide for students in Humanities

Search Techniques


Boolean Operators

Use Boolean Operators to string keywords (mostly in the form of nouns). These operators are AND, OR and NOT.

The Boolean operator AND gives a very specific result.

Hamlet and criticism will give you material on criticism or interpretation or insight into the play Hamlet – in other words secondary material on the play Hamlet.

The Boolean operator OR must be used for synonyms or similar words.

(drugs or narcotics)

-Zoom in or out = search under the bigger or the smaller picture too.  If you need information  on specific drugs, name them.


-Think of British, South African or American words, spelling, etc.

AIDS is known as HIV outside South Africa. Search for (HIV or AIDS)

Americans call staff employees. Search for (staff or personnel or employees)

Americans spell organizations with a “z”, the British (and South Africans) spell it with an “s”.

(organisation or organization)

Example: If you need information on teenagers and drugs you have to find synonyms or similar words for both keywords.

A Teenager may also be called a youth, an adolescent, a scholar, a learner, a student, etc. Keep this group of synonyms together by placing the words in the singular form into brackets: (teenager or youth or adolescent or scholar or learner or student)

And it with the next concept.

Drugs can be called narcotics. You would type in:

(drugs or narcotics)

 You could also specify your drugs by zooming in on Tik and on Dagga. You would type in:

(tik or dagga)

Your search would now look like this:

(teenager or youth or adolescent or scholar or learner or student) and (drugs or narcotics)

If you need information on the ‘use of tik and dagga by teenagers’, your search would be:

(teenager or youth or adolescent or scholar or learner or student) and (tik or dagga)

The Boolean operator NOT is used to exclude part of the information. It is not allowed on all databases.

AIDS not hearing would omit information on hearing aids.


“South Africa”, “Third World”, “Developing countries”, “integrated marketing communication”, “Cartesian philosophy”, etc. are examples of phrases.


(IMC or “Integrated marketing communication”)

(“South Africa” or “Third world” or “Developing countries”) and HIV


To find more hits one should include the singular and plural form of keywords and one would also find other applicable forms of the words. Use an asterisk after the stem of the word:

Universit* would render information on university and universities.

Brand* would render information on brand, brands and branding. But also on brandy. (You may get a surprise when you see your results and often it has to do with the retrieval of a form of a word with which you did not reckon!)


Wild Card

Instead of searching for (Globalisation or globalization) you could use the wild card ? which stands in the place of one letter.

Globali?ation and  poverty

Your librarian will show you how to string the keywords or words under which you want to search together. These searches can be repeated on other databases too.