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How to Use the Library's Databases

Take Time to Map Out Your Topic and Keywords

You don't want a topic that is too broad, that can lead to too much research to sift through and a paper that lacks focus. But, you also don't want one that is too narrow, that can lead to not enough sources and a paper that almost impossible to argue.

      An Example:

      Too broad: World War II

      Too narrow: Survival rate of green-eyed Canadian soldiers during World War II battles on even days of the month.

      Just right: How underground newspapers aided the French Resistance during World War II


Keywords translate your topic into search terms that you can use in the databases or online. You don't want to type in your entire topic sentence. Instead pull out the key terms. Also, don't forget about synonyms that could be use to describe your topic.

   An Example:

      Topic Sentence: Climate change is effecting the survival rate of Emperor penguin chick born in the wild.

            Keywords: climate change, global warming, penguins, Emperor penguins, survival, birth rate, chicks, eggs

Your keywords and your topic are not set in stone. You might find as you research that either of them may change based on what you find. It's all part of the research process!

Make Sure you Choose the Right Database

Our library has access to over 100 databases that cover many different subjects. Some of those databases are subject specific, meaning that they only contain information related to literature or biology. Others are more general resources that cover multiple disciplines.

Choosing the right databases mean that you will find relevant resources and not waste your time, for example, searching for biology information in a literature database.

Our Databases A-Z page allows you to filter by subject and each database has an annotation that describes its contents. If you are still not sure which database to use, you can explore our research guides and tutorials which list the relevant databases for many courses or disciplines.

Choose the Right Way to Search

Unlike Google, you are not limited to just a keyword search when searching in databases. In most databases you can also narrow down your results by subject area, type of material, or date published. Date published is especially important in an area like biology where information can become dated very quickly.

In addition, most databases have some built in tools for more precise searching.

Boolean searching (And, Or, Not):

These three operators allow you to combine search terms and search more efficiently 

  • AND will produce results that contain BOTH terms (e.g. AIDS AND Africa)
  • OR generates results that contain EITHER term (e.g. AIDS OR Africa)
  • NOT results will include the first terms, but not the second (AIDS NOT Africa)

The first example will provide only articles that contain AIDS and Africa in them, which helps to narrow the focus of your search. The second brings up articles with either AIDS or Africa but not necessarily both (you might end up with articles about cheetahs). This can be useful if you topic has multiple terms that could describe it. 

The third removes Africa from the results and only shows those AIDS articles that don't use the term Africa at all. Use care when using NOT as an operator. In the above example our intent may have been articles that focus on AIDS in other parts of the world, but an article about AIDS in the US that has the sentence: "AIDS was first discovered in Africa" will not show up!


Symbols like *, ?, or ! may be used at the end of words or in the middle of words so that you can search all their different variances at once.

For example, astro* can search for astronomy, astronomer, astronaut all at the same time. Also col!r might allow you to search for the term with its American (color) and British (colour) spelling.

Wildcards differ between the databases, but their "help" documentation will provide you a list and their meanings.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks will isolate that phrase: "natural selection" lists results containing only that specific phrase, but results for natural selection would contain natural AND selection somewhere, not necessarily side by side.

Subject or Thesaurus Terms

Often databases utilize a standard list of terms to describe articles, so all the material on a specific topic has the same subject terms, and sits in the same box. For example a database may assign the subject term "Moving picture" to articles that use the terms "movies," "films," or "cinema" in their full text. Once you know what term they used, you can search by subject and bring up ALL of the information on a topic. It can help you save time so you aren't constantly searching for alternate terms or synonyms. Most databases give you the option to search or browse through their subject terms before you search.

Field Searching

Databases store information in separate fields. Searching for Edgar Allan Poe in the Author Field will give you different results than if you search for him in the Subject field.

Databases organize information into fields like an Excel or Access datasheet. Searching for Poe in the author field will only bring up articles that he has wrote. Searching in the subject field brings up all the articles about him. Below is an example of some of the different fields you might see.

Image of the various fields available to search in a database

Keyword Searching Worksheet

The below worksheet is designed to help you get searching. It will help you find the keywords from your topic and move them towards the searching phase of this assignment. 

Want to try it out? Download the worksheet by clicking the link below: