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Visual Resources: Search Strategies

Search Tools in Print

Phrasing and Language 

Terms and Keywords

Developing a Search Strategy

Searching for images often requires different search strategies than searching through a library catalog or periodicals database. Retrieving visual content with words can be a complex process that involves matching search terms with the vocabulary used to describe an image. Your results will depend on the level of detail used to describe the image, which can range from very few words to in-depth subject analysis, and the extent to which your search terms match the descriptive vocabulary. You may find what you need with your first search, or you may need to try several different approaches. 


Choosing an image database

  • Browse the databases listed on either the "Online Image Databases" and "Resources by Subject" pages. Databases recommended here are arranged by subject, and the resource descriptions will tell you something about the images in the database.
  • Try searching more than one database. No one database will have every image you will need.
  • Move beyond Google Images. Most of the databases found on these pages contain images that cannot be found in a Google Images search.


Effectively using an image database

  • Familiarize yourself with the contents and features of the database you have chosen. Every database is structured differently, with different image content, different descriptive data, and different search functionality.
  • Browse the database. A good way to learn about a database is to browse it. This will give you an idea of how it organizes the data in the records, the level of detail for each image description, and the subject coverage of the database.
  • Use the "About" or "Help" pages. These pages often provide detail about how information is structured in the database, how images are indexed, and the types of images you are likely to find. This information will save you time and effort when you begin your search.


Search strategies

  • Start small using just 1 or 2 keywords to start your search, combining them using an "and." If your search retrieves a massive amount of images, then add additional keywords to narrow you results. If your results set is too small, you may need to try other databases.
  • What do you know about an image? Consider everything you might know about an image you're looking for. Location? Artist? Title? Subject? Keywords from any of these categories could help.
  • Are there other ways the image might have been described? The visual elements you want to see in the image may be only partially described with keyword terms. You may have more success searching on place names (what place is depicted, or where is the object), time periods, artist names or dates.
  • Check reference sources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.) in your subject area for more search terms. Browsing a book on your topic of interest may give you that extra bit of information that helps you broaden your list of possible search terms or help to familiarize you with the terms associated with a style of art or historical period.
  • If image titles may be in a language other than English, or if you are looking for non-English place names, you may need to experiment with different possible translations, or try non-English vocabulary.
  • Artist names and place names often have more than one accepted spelling or format. Images are often described using vocabulary that is not controlled by a thesaurus or subject headings, so try using variations of spelling or terms in your search process to help you find more results.


Keep in mind...

Searching for images can often be more unstructured than searching for books or journal articles. Think creatively to retrieve the most useful images, and be willing to experiment with different search strategies. Learn from your successes. If you find just the right image in a particular database, make a note of that success so that next time you need to find an image, you'll remember what worked.

Search Tools Online


Encyclopedia Britannica » 

The complete academic encyclopedia, related articles, images, and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

Oxford Art Online » 

The full-text of Grove Dictionary of Art and The Oxford Companion to Western Art, with thousands of images and continuously updated articles on major artists, periods, and styles.

Oxford English Dictionary » 

A guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words from across the English-speaking world.



Getty Research Institute Vocabularies

The Getty vocabularies contain structured terminology for art, architecture, decorative arts and other material culture, archival materials, visual surrogates, and bibliographic materials. Compliant with international standards, they provide authoritative information to enhance access to databases and Web sites. 


AAT: The Art & Architecture Thesaurus 

Catherine wheel or rose window? AAT is a structured vocabulary, including terms, descriptions, and other information for generic concepts related to art and architecture.

CONA: The Cultural Object Name Authority

Mona Lisa or La Gioconda? CONA, a new vocabulary now accepting contributions, includes titles, attributions, and other information for art and architecture.

TGN: The Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names 

London or Londinium? TGN is a structured vocabulary, including names, descriptions, and other information for places important to art and architecture.

ULAN: The Union List of Artist Names

Titian or Tiziano Vecellio? ULAN is a structured vocabulary, including names, biographies, and other information about artists and architects.