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Choosing and Using Library Databases

What Does the Database Search?

Example search fields, including All Text, Author, Title, Subject Terms, Abstract, Geographic Terms, People, etc.

Example of search fields available in Academic Search Complete.

Some databases do not actually contain the full text of articles. Instead they have metadata, data about the data. Your search words need to match words used in the metadata to get results. Common metadata fields for articles include:

The basic search typically searches all metadata fields, but there's usually an advanced search screen where you can select specific fields.

Choosing the right search field can be crucial. You'll get very different results searching "shakespeare" as an author or as a subject.

Pros and Cons of Searching Full Text

Even databases that can search full-text often have the option of limiting your search to just the metadata.

When to Use Full-Text Searching

When to Avoid Full-Text Searching

  • searching for obscure terms which may be mentioned in the text without appearing in the abstract or title
  • database content lacks abstracts or detailed subject headings
  • searching for common words
  • searching for words or phrases that have different meaning depending on context

Subject Headings

Subject headings are a form of descriptive metadata. At their simplest they may be tags chosen by the authors, but most databases use a controlled vocabulary assigned by professional catalogers

The advantage of controlled subject terms is that they're standardized terms which will be assigned to all appropriate content no matter what terminology (or even language) is used by the author. For example, Academic Search Complete uses the subject term "motion pictures," even if the article uses the words "films," "movies," or "cinema."

Whenever you find a good article in a database, check out the subject headings. If one or more of them look like matches for your topic, re-run your search using those terms--and be sure to specify you want those terms in the subject field. That will ensure the search results are really about that subject and don't just happen to mention those words in passing somehow.

One thing to watch out for: each database has its own controlled vocabulary for subjects.


Subject Term for Movies

Academic Search Complete
  • Motion pictures
  • plus many specific terms like X in motion pictures
  • Film Studies
Web of Science
  • Film, Radio, Television
FIAF International Index to Film Periodicals
  • No general term for movies (they're all about movies)
  • Many specific terms like Film archives, Film Australia, Film business, and Film canon

As you can see, the usefulness of the subject headings can vary. And remember that ProQuest and EBSCO are not databases. They're online publishing companies that host multiple databases. So even though you can search multiple ProQuest databases from the same search box, the subject terms won't be consistent.

Videos: Crafting a Savvy Search Strategy

Quick introduction to brainstorming search terms for an effective database search.

Quick video helps students find a subject specific research guide and databases.