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Databases: Home

Searching Overview

  • The key to being a savvy online searcher is to use common search techniques that you can apply to almost any database, including article databases, online catalogs and even commercial search engines.
  • This is important because searching library databases is a bit different from searching Google.
  • The techniques described in this section will enable you to quickly retrieve relevant information from the thousands of records in a database.
  • When you search a database and do not get the results you expect, ask for advice.  Library staff are happy to help you find what you need.

Finding Subject Headings

To find subject headings for your topic:

Look to see if the database has an online thesaurus to browse for subjects that match your topic (check the Help screens).

Some databases publish thesauri in print (e.g. Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms for the PsycInfo database). Ask the library staff for help using thesauri.

Another way to find subject headings:

Start with a keyword search, using words/phrases that describe your topic.

Browse the results; choose 2 or 3 that are relevant.

Look at the Subject or Descriptor field and note the terms used (write them down).

Redo your search using those terms.

Your results will be more precise than your initial keyword search.

Subject Headings vs Key Words

Subject headings describe the content of each item in a database. Use these headings to find relevant items on the same topic.  Searching by subject headings (a.k.a. descriptors) is the most precise way to search article databases.

It is not easy to guess which subject headings are used in a given database. For example, the phone book's Yellow Pages use subject headings. If you look for "Movie Theatres" you will find nothing, as they are listed under the subject heading "Theatres - Movies."

Keyword searching is how you typically search web search engines.  Think of important words or phrases and type them in to get results.

Here are some key points about each type of search:

Keywords
vs.
Subjects
  • natural language words describing your topic - good to start with
 
  • pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" words used to describe the content of each item (book, journal article) in a database
  • more flexible to search by - can combine together in many ways
 
  • less flexible to search by - need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term
  • database looks for keywords anywhere in the record - not necessarily connected together
 
  • database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear
  • may yield too many or too few results
 
  • if too many results - also uses subheadings to focus on one aspect of the broader subject
  • may yield many irrelevant results
 
  • results usually very relevant to the topic

When you search a database and do not get the results you expect, ask the library staff for advice.

Truncation & Wild Cards

Truncation:

Truncation, also called stemming, is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings.

To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.

The database will return results that include any ending of that root word.

Examples:   child* = child, childs, children, childrens, childhood

                        genetic* = genetic, genetics, genetically

Truncation symbols may vary by database; common symbols include: *, !, ?, or #


Wildcards:

Similar to truncation, wildcards substitute a symbol for one letter of a word.

This is useful if a word is spelled in different ways, but still has the same meaning.

Examples:

wom!n = woman, women

colo?r = color, colour

If you have questions about applying this technique to your search, talk to the library staff.