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Research Fundamentals: Use Databases


data·base: noun 1. A collection of data arranged for ease and speed of search and retrieval.


 --The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

This quality of being " ... arranged for ease and speed of search and retrieval" is what distinguishes a database from a computer network like the Internet, which has no standardized organization principle.

Databases may sometimes be accessed through the Internet, but their contents are not retrieved by search engine services like Google or Yahoo! Most are available through separate Web sites that charge a fee for use, normally paid by libraries on behalf of their users.

Database Coverage

Every database contains only certain types and amounts of information, a characteristic called coverage. This information can typically be found in the database itself under links such as "About [name of database]," "Database information," "Title list," or "Sources," etc. Web-based databases are typically accessed from a link that is annotated with some information about coverage. Databases published in paper form normally locate this information in the front of each volume or in an introduction.

Consider the following elements of database coverage: 

What kinds of documents? Databases can include a journals, magazines, books, book chapters, dissertations, audio files, statistical tables, images, Web pages, software applications
What disciplines? General databases may cover many disciplines; subject databases may be more limited in their scope
What time periods? Some databases may cover hundreds of years while others may limit coverage to more recent documents
What languages? Many databases will include documents in a range of languages or provide translation services
Which publication types? Scholarly databases will provide access to academic research sources; general databases may include popular, trade and scholarly works
What is included in the record? Databases subscribe to a large number of publications but may index even more-- while some articles may be available for you to read immediately (full-text), others may only provide an abstract or simply a citation.

Field Searching

Most search engines and databases search "words anywhere" or "keywords" automatically unless you select another type of search.

Keyword searching finds matches for your terms in any field of a record or any part of a Web page, so you will typically retrieve more information with less precision.

Databases and search engines may allow searching in specific fields such as author, title, url (Web address), or subject (which is the most common field to search) and will sometimes refer to this as "advanced," or "expert" searching. These searches will typically retrieve less information with more precision.

If you are a detective and the only clues you have for a missing persons case are the words "red," "blue," and "green," these people could be a match.
This is keyword searching: RED + BLUE + GREEN
If instead you knew your person had a red tie, blue shirt, and a green beret, you have a better chance of finding the right person.
This is field searching: Tie= RED, Shirt= BLUE, Beret= GREEN


When should you use a keyword search?
We recommend keyword searching when you are doing either a large original research project or are looking for a rare or unique term (e.g. Eminem). This strategy allows you to find anything remotely related to a topic. Doctoral students and professional researchers typically perform these searches early in their research in order to identify everything already published about their focus area. Keyword searching can also be an effective strategy for identifying subject terms from a few relevant records to prepare for a subject field search later.

When should you use a field search?
We recommend field searching when you need to find a relatively small number of sources on a specific topic. This type of searching is most useful for smaller projects like course term papers, problem-solving activities, and making consumer choices.

Building a Search Question

Most databases don't understand the natural language we speak and need help understanding what we're looking for. For this, they require a special set of conventions, including:

Quotation marks Around exact phrases (e.g. "college of dupage")
Logical or Boolean operators Connecting words that narrow or broaden a search to include only what you need. Examples: OR, AND, NOT
Wildcards and truncation symbols
(* # ? !)
For terms that have variant forms of spelling or different possible endings. Examples: child* for child, children, childhood, childish, etc.
Nesting Placing terms in parentheses to indicate separate units. Like an equation, (A or B) not C


For additional information about using these strategies, see Use Boolean Operators in this guide.

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