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Reference Guide: Database Basics

This guide serves as the home page for all things Reference at Lewis Library. Meet your reference librarians, learn about reference services available to you, and check out suggested resources and guides all from this page!

Database Searching Basics

This guide gives tips on how to search for articles on a specific topic in databases. If you already have a citation for an article and are looking for full text,  use Journal Locator to see if we have full text online; if we don't, ask a librarian, who can determine whether we have it in print, or help you order it on interlibrary loan.

1. Use only essential words.

Avoid long strings of words, such as "the role of the gods in Homer's Odyssey." Most databases will look for all the words you type in as a phrase. A search for "the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho" won't retrieve an article with the title "Hitchcock and the Shower Scene in Psycho." You're better off searching for "hitchcock AND psycho" (or "hitchcock AND psycho AND shower", but remember that the more words you use, the fewer results you get).



2. Use Boolean operators.

The Boolean operators - AND, OR, and NOT - will make your search much more efficient:

han solo AND luke skywalker

capital punishment OR death penalty

martin luther NOT king (to get articles on Martin Luther rather than Martin Luther King)

See this guide for more details on Boolean operators.



3. Read the bibliographic record.

The title doesn't always tell you what the article's about. Before clicking on "Full text," click on the title to get the full bibliographic record:

- The abstract summarizes what the article covers.

- The subject terms (sometimes called "descriptors") indicate the term used by this database for the topic.

Often the abstract and subject terms will give you ideas for other search terms to try. Note that the subject term may not be what you expect. For example, the subject term for the Spanish Inquisition is not "Spanish Inquisition":

To get more articles on the Spanish Inquisition, click on the link "INQUISITION -- Spain."



4.  Which database?

Even if your search terms are good, they won't work if you're in the wrong database. A database may be excellent for one subject and worthless for another.

It's often best to search in a specific database, rather than try to search multiple databases by using the "DISCOVER" box you get if you click on "GALILEO" on the library web site (though sometimes the DISCOVER box works well).  Click on "Search Databases A-Z" on the library home page (or this link) and select a database.

If your professor hasn't recommended a database to your class (e.g., JSTOR, or ATLAS for religion), you may want to ask the librarian at the reference desk which database will be best for your topic. If no librarian is on duty (e.g. on weekends) or you're not in the library, use the Ask-a-Librarian or Chat feature on the library home page (please tell us your topic and what course it's for; for a medical topic, we want to know whether you're in English 1101 or an advanced nursing course).

If you're instructed to use scholarly journals, either use a database that covers only scholarly journals (such as JSTOR or Project Muse) or click on the box that says "Scholarly Journals" (or "Peer-Reviewed"):

In EBSCOhost databases, the box will look like this:

Reference & ILL Librarian

Kelly Ansley's picture
Kelly Ansley
Frank & Laura Lewis Library
LaGrange College
601 Broad Street
LaGrange, GA 30240
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