How to use online library databases

A library catalog is a database as opposed to a search engine. Libraries offer many other databases for research besides the catalog. (Everyone does research, by the way, even though not everyone writes about the results.) In some ways you use them the same way you use the catalog, but there are important differences. I will illustrate using an online library database called Academic Search Complete.

Academic Search Complete, like all databases, is organized by fields. That is, a complete record will contain separate fields for such things as author, title, subject, journal title, various standard numbers, etc.You can limit your search to a single field or you can search multiple fields at once. You can use a single term or several terms.

But in one very important way, you can’t search a database the way you do a search engine. In a search engine, you choose your terms and type them all in the search box. The search engine assumes that you want to use all of the words you type as your search. It therefore assumes “and” between terms.

If you are doing research about plastic in landfills using a search engine, simply type “plastic landfill” (without the quotation marks) in the search field and hit enter. The search engine will search its index for everything that contains plastic or plastics, everything that contains landfill or landfills, and return only the items that contain both.

Unless you narrow your search by using lots of terms, including uncommon words, you will get back tens of thousands of results, or maybe multiple millions. Not everything will have anything to do with your research topic. Maybe not even everything on the first page of results.

Online library databases (including the catalog) do not assume that you mean “plastic and landfill” unless you say so. When you use a database in your research, you must enter the Boolean operators (and, or, not) explicitly. And if you only want to search in a particular field, you must also indicate that to the database. Here is the opening (basic) search screen for Academic Search Complete:

online databases

I see that the full width of my screen shots does not appear, at least on the browser I used for checking. The only thing missing is the name of the library I used in the upper right corner.

This information is not free on the Internet. It is very expensive. You can’t afford your own subscription online databases. I searched Academic Search Complete from home because I have a library card with Greensboro Public Library.

From time to time I need to consult research databases that my public library does not offer. I am fortunate that there are several colleges and universities in Greensboro, and more in neighboring towns, but I have to go to their libraries in order to use their databases. They may or may not let me print or save searches to a thumb drive. Many databases allow users to send citations or even complete articles by email.

Academic Search Complete has the familiar single search box. It looks like a search engine box, but if you enter more than one term and forget the “and,” it will look for all words as a phrase. Most databases will tell likely you that they can’t find anything.

Academic Search Complete has one helpful feature not found on every research database: you can enter terms as you would in a search engine and then use the “search options” to specify whether you want all of the terms (that is, putting “and” between them and narrowing your results) or any of the terms (that is, putting “or” between the terms and widening your results).

If one of your key words is an author’s name and another is a word from the title of an article, how can you express that in a single box?

As you learn to use this particular database, you’ll learn the abbreviations you have to use. You’ll also learn, with the next screen in this post,  that it’s actually so easy to use the advanced search that there is no need ever to bother with basic search at all.

You can if you have only one term–and are prepared to wade through maybe hundreds or thousands of hits. That’s much less than what you’d get from a search engine, but still lots of items useless for your research.

Even so, take a good look at the rest of that basic screen. Ten ways of limiting your search are visible, and there are a few more that you must scroll down to see.

  • Some entries in this database will give you only a citation, or only a citation and abstract. You will need to get a printed journal to read these articles. If you don’t want to do that, you can select full text and never have to look at anything else.
  • Some entries in this database may be popular magazines, newsletters, or anything else where an editor selects the content without getting specific approval of a panel of experts. This kind of material may or may not be suitable for your research. You can select peer reviewed journals if you can’t use the other stuff.
  • Some articles have references to other publications in either footnotes or bibliographies. Not all do. You can also check a box to eliminate the latter from your results. That limit especially comes in handy in the early stages of research when you’re collecting useful sources. If the article is good, raid its references!
  • You can also limit your results to articles mentioned on the cover of a journal or magazine
  • By selecting the number of pages, you can decide whether you want only full-scale treatments of your subject, or only a short overview.
  • Can’t read anything but English? You’re looking for something that you know appeared in a Russian journal? Limit your results by language.
  • There are many research projects where you might not be interested in anything that appeared before or after a certain date, or outside a range of dates. Limit your search by publication date. If you fill in only the top value, your results will include everything written since. If you enter only the bottom value, your results will include everything written before. You do not need to select a month, but it’s an option.
  • Besides the publication types visible on the screen shot, other choices are Primary Source Document, Educational Report, and Health Report.
  • The document type menu has too many items to list. Other choices besides what’s visible include Book Chapter, Erratum (list of errors), Interview, Obituary, Recipe, Short Story, and.various kinds of reviews.

Here is the advanced search screen for Academic Search Complete:

online databases

I can’t figure out how to get a screen shot showing the pull-down menus, but this one is enough to show that you do not have to select a field. The top entry in the menu is “TX All Text” and the bottom one is “AN Accession Number.” Besides Author, Title, Subject, Journal Name, the menu allow searches for author-submitted keywords, the abstract, product reviews, and other textual content, along with several different numbers you can use for searching.

Each field has a two letter abbreviation. You can use these abbreviations, along with Boolean operators, in Basic Search, but why bother?

If you use more than one term, the default Boolean operator is “and.” Other choices are “or” and “not.” These three are not the only Boolean operators that exist, but they are the only ones you can use with this database. You are not limited to three terms. By clicking “Add Row” you can have as many as you need. Advance Search offers the same ways to limit your search as Basic Search.

Most online research databases have a controlled vocabulary. In a library catalog, it means that there is one and only one way to express a given term. For example, “Cancer” is a valid subject heading in most public and academic libraries; medical libraries use “Neoplasms” instead. If you look up “Cancer” in a medical library, the cross reference structure will send you to “Neoplasms.”

Other online library databases may not be so careful to exclude synonyms. If you notice both “Cancer” and “Neoplasms” in the subject list, you need to search both terms to find everything the database has. (Using the advanced search and two pulldown menus set to subject, search “Cancer OR Neoplasms.”)

Academic Search Complete makes its controlled subject vocabulary easy to find:

online databases

One very good thing about this database is that its subject list actually does have entries for non-preferred terms. Not all of them do. In fact not all online library databases make their subject list as easy to find.

I remember giving up on one database because it was so difficult for me to force it to give me any information at all. It was a citation index, meaning it was supposed to let me look up an article or book and see what later authors had cited it. Apparently it had a hidden controlled vocabulary for authors in the form of last name followed by initials with no spaces.

It would have been nice if it said so somewhere in the instructions. Looking up a simple last name yielded nothing at all, and I could find the right term only if I stumbled on to an article by the right person more or less by accident. I could use so few of the citations for my research that using the database wasn’t worth the effort.

On the bright side, usually if you can’t find a list of terms fairly easily, it means that the database does not have a controlled vocabulary at all. Historic newspaper databases, for example, simply search the full text of the newspaper articles. These are great resources for any kind of historical research. It is easy to find fascinating information in them.

You have to try various key words to be sure you have found everything of interest, but even if you content yourself with one good term, you’ll get more material than you can use. Chances are no one else is looking there for the same information, and you can offer your readers (even if it’s only your teacher) things no one else knows.

Some online library databases are very well designed, others are so terrible as to be almost useless. They’re all different. I hope my mention of one turkey does not scare anyone off from trying them. Here are two important ways to simplify learning databases for your research:

  • As long as you have to use a library to gain access to them, ask a reference librarian to show you how to navigate. Librarians have learned to use even the most balky databases.
  • On all the screenshots, the logo for EbscoHost is much larger than the name of the database. The link “choose database” will show you other EbscoHost databases available from the library you’re using. EbscoHost is one of half a dozen or so companies that supply large numbers of databases to libraries. The user interface for any one of these companies will be the same across all the databases they offer. You don’t have to learn it from scratch every time you look at a new online library database.

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