Effective Searching of Databases


This page is intended to give you general advice on how to get the best out of the search engines used by the kind of databases we provide. Unlike Internet search engines, these databases contain carefully catalogued information, and you can exploit this to improve your searching skills.

Plan Your Search

If you plan your searches in advance, you have more chance of finding all that you need so you won't need to go back online when you realise that you haven't got that essential piece of information. Before you even go near the Internet, spend some time thinking about exactly what information you need for your exam or essay.

Start by jotting down words or phrases as they come to mind, as this may help to define exactly what information you need. As your ideas become clearer, try to write a single sentence or search statement which exactly describes what you need to know.

Unfortunately, if you type your search statement into an internet search engine, you won’t get the results that you need. Therefore, you need to transform your search statement into a set of key words or phrases that can be used to carry out a search on the internet or on a database.  A good technique to help you do this it is to underline the keyword or ideas in the sentence, as this will help to split your information need into searchable chunks.

Once you have your list of key words or ideas you will need to make sure that you have all the possible alternative words that could be used to describe your list of ideas. For example, there are several alternative terms for effective (e.g. competent, productive, proficient, capable) and even the internet can be referred to in several different ways (e.g. internet, net, www, world-wide-web). To make sure that you cover all the possibilities you need to take into account:

  • Synonyms
  • Plurals
  • Phrases
  • Abbreviations
  • Acronyms
  • Variations in spelling (e.g. organisation and organization between UK and US English)

Use the Help Pages!

Whilst we provide basic quick start guides, the databases we provide all have some form of online help that contain the information you need to become a much faster, more effective user. It helps to know what kind of features you are looking out for when you are browsing help pages. So, what are these features?

Power Searching: Boolean Operators, Proximity, Truncation and Wildcards

The databases you will be searching are not like Google, where you can enter a very simple search and almost always get a decent set of results. Terms like "Boolean Operators" sound very intimidating, but in fact the concepts behind then are very simple and once you have mastered them you will be able to conduct much more precise searches. Many databases that support such techniques will have some form of explanation, but we have prepared a general guide to these so called power searching methods.

Exploiting Indexes

As mentioned in the introduction, you will be searching carefully catalogued databases. In practice this means that you can search indexes i.e. limiting your search to a certain type of information to make your search more precise. For example, you may be looking for articles written by a particular author, in which case you would be wise to look for an author index. If you are looking for information from a particular organisation, in which a publisher index will be a big help.

Subject Headings and Thesauri

Databases often use subject headings to describe records. These headings are a "controlled vocabulary" - effectively a limited dictionary of terms used to summarise the topics covered by each record. If you are not sure what terms to use in your search, or have already attempted searches but got poor results, browsing or searching through subject headings (sometimes referred to as a thesaurus or as topics) can be a good way to make progress.

Limiting your Search

Everybody who regularly searches databases knows the frustration of being presented with a huge list of search results. What can you do in this situation? Using subject headings/thesauri (see above) can help if your search terms are rather general, but there are often ways of limiting your search according to criteria independent of the topic you are searching for.

Common limiting criteria are:

  • Date.
  • Publication type e.g. book or journal article.
  • Type of record e.g. search for full text articles only, excluding records where only an abstract is available.
  • Journal title.

Searching Using Citations

Sometimes, rather than searching for information on a particular topic, you will be looking for the text of a citation, otherwise known as a reference. Many databases have a facility to search for a citation, which is much more efficient than trying to track it down via a general search.