Using Databases

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the value and importance of using library databases

Why Use Databases?

You are already comfortable with using Google and other search engines, so why take the time to learn about library databases? While it may take some getting used to initially, library databases are far superior for academic research and can provide lots of pertinent results in a fraction of the time you’d need to find the material in a search engine.

Here are some other reasons that databases are so valuable:

  • You can access tons of scholarly journal articles, but also find books, reference book articles, popular magazine articles, and newspaper articles
  • Databases don’t have sponsors, pop-ups, or advertisements.
  • All material in a database is evaluated for accuracy and credibility by subject experts and publishers.
  • Databases are reviewed and updated regularly.
  • Library database subscriptions are paid for through your library so you shouldn’t have to pay for articles.
  • The search capabilities enable you to search for focused results.
  • Published content from journals, magazines, newspapers, and books does not change.
  • Most material remains in the database for a significant length of time and can be easily retrieved again.
  • Many databases include a citation tool that will automatically generate an APA or MLA style references for the article you select. You may still need to “tweak” this citation but these tools serve as a good starting point for citing your articles in a particular format.

Watch It

Watch this video to review the distinctions of a scholarly article and to see why library databases are so valuable to your academic research.

You can view the transcript for “What is Scholarly Research?” here (download).

Database Searching

Research databases don’t search like Google. One major difference is that not all databases let you search with everyday or  “natural language” terms. Learning a few tricks and search strategies will help you find more relevant results. You’ll want to begin by boiling your topic idea down into a few key concepts and terms. For example, if your paper is about the mental health of immigrants in school settings, you would search for keywords like mental health, immigrants, and school.

Next, you’ll want to think of synonyms for those words and more precise terms so that you can try different approaches to your research. For example, mental health might also be well-being, psychology, or mental state, or it could be a specific mental disorder such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or drug or alcohol abuse. Immigrants could also be refugees or migrant workers, or you could focus on a specific group of immigrants. Similarly, school could also be written as education, academics, or more precisely as elementary school, high school, or college.

Three sets of venn diagrams showing different terminology options when using a Boolean Operator. First venn diagram: both circles are colored in, illustrating the use of "or" terminology. Second venn diagram: Only the overlapping section of the circles is colored in, illustrating the use of "and" terminology. Third venn diagram: only one circle is colored in, illustrating the use of "not" terminology when being more specific in your search.

Figure 1. Boolean Operators will help you narrow and refine your search.

Database searches enable you to use Boolean operators to specify what you are searching for. You could type in mental health AND refugees into the search bar to narrow your results to things that only contain both of those concepts. You can use the operator OR to broaden your results to search for mental health AND refugees OR immigrants. You can also add in quotation marks to search for exact words or phrases.

Databases also have options to revise your search by using limiters, such as searching for only peer-reviewed articles, within a specific date, a specific type of source, or by subject. Watch the following video to learn more about tips and shortcuts for effective database searching. Some of the tips include:

  • Use the advanced search within a database.
  • Use the Boolean operators AND or NOT to combine your keywords in a single search.
  • If you know you want the entire article, check the box for the full text.
  • Don’t do a search that is too broad or too narrow.
  • Use quotation marks around a compound term.
  • Add other keywords to narrow your search, and use search limiters like source type, publication year, source type, etc.
  • Using the subject terms index or the thesaurus in the database to find the best search terms.
  • Remember that you can also use databases to search within a certain publication.
  • Utilize the cite feature in databases to help you create citations.

Try It