6.3: Choosing a database
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Now you can go to a computer and start the research you will use for your paper/project. You have thought through your topic, identified questions to explore, terms to use and how best they will be combined. Now it is time to pick a database (or two or three or...). For good research, you will find that you will often use multiple databases. Most of the information you will use for your academic papers and projects will come from books and articles that you will find via library databases. When first using a database, be sure and move the scroll bar all the way up and down to see what searching and limiting options you have. Click on the advanced search and scroll up and down again. In some databases you will see the options change a bit once you have done a search or when you are further along in the process. Read the pages that appear so you can take advantage of all your search options.
Every Database is Different
Some have books, others have articles and some have both or other kinds of information. Some specialize in one subject field and have information only on nursing or psychology, or botany and so on. Some have information on just about everything. Some have scholarly information, some have popular information and some have both. Some allow you to limit your search to scholarly information. Some allow you to limit your search to only items that are available in full-text. Some give you access to information on the internet, others only provide information they have purchased. Be aware of these possibilities and look for them.
Every Database is the Same
Every database is searchable. Every database uses Boolean logic. Every database has fields so always check the advanced search to see what fields you can search. (This is a different kind of field from a field of study to which we referred when we talked about experts in a field. (See details in section 5D below.) For now, just know that all databases have fields.) Most databases will allow you to print and/or email what you find. Some will put your citations in a particular style such as APA or MLA as an option when you send via email. (Always check these automated citations for errors and see 3D for more on citation styles such as MLA or APA.) Most allow truncation and phrase searching. Be aware of these possibilities and look for them.
Databases offer Books, Article, Media and More
Choose a database that will have the kind of information you will need by reading the database descriptions provided or by asking a librarian. A review of Section 2A would help determine what kind of information you want. Library databases may contain lists of articles, full text articles, a list of books, periodicals, DVDs owned by the library, the full text of books or streaming video. A library’s catalog (which is a database) will list what the library owns: e-books, print books, periodicals (magazines, newspapers and journals) and DVDs. Notice, that this list does not include articles. Library catalogs lists the periodicals the articles are in but not the authors, titles or full text of articles. A community college might have 50 databases while a large research institution will have hundreds. Talk with the librarian about which to use for your topic so you can use your time efficiently.
Free Databases and Access from Home
Most vendors of scholarly databases charge for articles, but your institution and the public library pay for the ones they provide and offer them to you free of charge. It is important to go through your institution’s website to reach the database so you can get to them freely. If you are enrolled in a college, chances are you can access many of the databases from home or any off campus spot with web access. If you go directly to the database provider’s website, such as EBSCO or ProQuest, you will not have access, unless you pay. Most often your library will have a page of databases from which you may choose. Choose the one that offers both the topic and type of resource (books, articles, etc.) you need.
Article databases work like an index found in the back of many books. In a book’s index, you do not find the information, but rather the page number on which you will find the information. In article databases, you will find lists of articles on your topic and the volume and issue of the periodical (magazine, newspaper, journal) in which you will find each article. Many databases will have the full text of the article right there. (See Finding Articles in Section 7 for details.)
Searching more than one library database at a time
Some institutions offer multiple-database searches that allow you to search most if not all of their databases at once. That means your results will include articles, books, encyclopedia entries, films and more in the same list. These resources may be electronic or in print. These are federated searches and are often called by other names such as a discovery search, search all, search works or onesearch.
It is common for books and articles to be labeled as such in federated searches. If not, it is up to you to determine the kind of information retrieved by your search. Books will have only a year in their citation, while article citations will have the year, as well as season, month, issue number and so forth. (See section 6I for examples.) If in doubt, ask a librarian what you have in your results. It is important to know what you have found so you can decide if it is the type of source you want to use, so you can cite it correctly and so you know how to evaluate it properly.
Some libraries will show the results of these federated searches in categories such as books and articles. After you search your topic, you can then choose if you want books or articles. The advanced search options sometimes appear after your initial search in the federated searches. Remember to look for the search options so you can optimize your research.
It is important to notice that the fields available to search in the federated searches are different and often more limited than the fields available via a search in an individual database. Field searching is a powerful way to control searching and is discussed in the next section.
Notice also the date of the information you want in the citation for that information. Occasionally, the date that is most prominent is not the date of the information, but rather the date the database was created.
Libraries that offer multiple-database searching (federated searching) most often also allow searching individual databases. If you want to take advantage of searching specific fields (See 6D) or a subject specific database that fits your topic, it might be best to choose an individual database. Another reason to use an individual database rather than the multiple database search offered by a federated search is for known-item searching (i.e. if you know the title of a book or article) or if you know what you want is a book. For the latter, you can just look in the library’s catalog and avoid looking through articles and films for the book you want. (See section 7A for more about finding books in and beyond a library’s catalog.)
Google is a Database
Most of us have used the search engine Google. Google is another database so the same searching tips we have discussed also apply. Used in conjunction with library databases and applying solid evaluation criteria, Google can be a very useful tool to access information but does not replace the high quality information found in most academic library databases. Before using Google, ask yourself the evaluation questions in 2B above and other such things as, “How am I going to use the information?” and “What kind of information do I need?” Is Google the best place to look for the information you need? As with other databases, look for Google’s advanced search which will provide more search options. Google can link us to a wealth of information on the web. Like any information, information found through Google needs to be evaluated. Google is great at finding organizations and associations that might have information on your topic. (See Section 8 for more on searching Google.)
Nasrudin Sufi stories have been used to learn about both the sacred and profane since the 13th century. Here is how Shah (1964) tells one of the most well-known stories about Nasrudin:
On one occasion a neighbor found him down on his knees looking for something.
“What have you lost, Mullah?”
“My key,” said Nasrudin. After a few minutes of searching, the other man said,
“Where did you drop it?”
“Then why, for heaven’s sake, are you looking here?”
“There is more light here.”
For our purposes, we can learn from the wise old fool that we should not look for the answers to our questions in the place that seems easiest, but rather where the information we need will be found. The goal is to answer your questions, not simply take the first few things that pop up on your screen and use only them. Choose a database that has the kind of information you want (book, articles…), covers the topics you need (general or subject specific information) and has information meeting any other criteria you need (peer reviewed, primary source…).