How to Search in a Library Database


Scholarly databases like the ones your library subscribes to work differently than search engines like Google and Yahoo because they offer sophisticated tools and techniques for searching that can improve your results.

Databases may look different, but they can all be used in similar ways. Most databases can be searched using keywords or fields. In a keyword search, you want to search for the main concepts or synonyms of your keywords. A field is a specific part of a record in a database. Common fields that can be searched are author, title, subject, or abstract. For example, if you already know the author of a specific article, entering their “Last Name, First Name” in the author field will pull more relevant records than a keyword search. This will ensure all results are articles written by the author and not articles about that author or with that author’s name.

The video below demonstrates how to perform a title search within the popular EBSCO database, Academic Search Complete.

Credit: “EBSCOhost Academic Search Ultimate Basic Search Tutorial” by Susan Weber CCC Library. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

Practice: Key Word Search

1. Identify the keywords in the following research question: “How does repeated pesticide use in agriculture impact soil and groundwater pollution?”

Pesticide, agriculture, soil, groundwater, pollution. You want to focus on the main idea and can ignore common words that don’t have any meaning.

2. When you search, it’s helpful to think of synonyms for your keywords to examine various results. What synonyms can you think of for the keywords identified in the question above?

Pesticide: agrochemicals, pest management, weed management, diazinan, malathion. Agriculture: farming, food crops, specific types of crops. Soil: earth, clay, organic components. Groundwater: watershed, water resources, water table, aquatics, rivers, lakes. Pollution: environmental impact, degradation, exposure, acid rain

Sometimes you already have a citation (maybe you found it on Google Scholar or saw it linked through another source), but want to find the article. Everything you need to locate your article is already found in the citation.

Many databases, including the library catalog, offer tools to help you narrow or expand your search. Take advantage of these. The most common tools are Boolean searching and truncation.

Boolean Searching

Boolean searching allows you to use AND, OR, and NOT to combine your search terms. Here are some examples:

  1. “Endangered Species” AND “Global Warming” When you combine search terms with AND, you’ll get results in which BOTH terms are present. Using AND limits the number of results because all search terms must appear in your results.
    Two overlapping circles, indicating the area where the search containing "and" overlaps, showing how "and" narrows search results.
    “Endangered Species” AND “Global Warming” will narrow your search results to where the two concepts overlap.


  2. “Arizona Prisons” OR “Rhode Island Prisons” When you use OR, you’ll get results with EITHER search term. Using OR increases the number of results because either search term can appear in your results.
    Two distinct circles, representing double the amount of search results, showing how "or" expands search results.
    “Arizona Prisons” OR “Rhode Island Prisons” will increase your search results.


  3. “Miami Dolphins” NOT “Football” When you use NOT, you’ll get results that exclude a search term. Using NOT limits the number of results.
Image of a big green circle with a white circle inside of it, showing how "not" removes some search results, .
“Miami Dolphins” NOT “Football” removes the white circle (football) from the green search results (Miami Dolphins).


Truncation allows you to search different forms of the same word simultaneously. Use the root of a word and add an asterisk (*) as a substitute for the word’s ending. This can save time and increase your search to include related words. For example, a search for “Psycho*” would pull results on psychology, psychological, psychologist, psychosis, and psychoanalyst.



Adapted from Lumen Learning’s “How to Search in a Library Database” from English Composition II, used according to CC BY 4.0.


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UNM Core Writing OER Collection Copyright © 2023 by University of New Mexico is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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