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Course Creation/Revision Guide: Navigating Databases

This guide is designed to assist course writers and instructional designers with navigating the library and utilizing library resources.

Navigating Databases

Databases are designed to function differently from search engines like Google or Yahoo.  The key to navigating databases is to apply certain search techniques that work well with databases.

The techniques described in this section are intended to enable course writers to effectively retrieve information when designing courses and provide insight on similar pathways students take when they conduct research for their assignments.

Keywords vs. Subject Terms

There are two main strategies for searching in library databases:  using either keywords or subject terms.

Keywords are general words or phrases used to describe a topic and originate from the user.

Subject terms, also known as subject headings, are specific words used by indexers and catalogers to describe content in databases.


Subject Terms

Uncontrolled terminology and natural language, permitting an open form of searching

Controlled vocabulary originating from particular fields of study

Search terms originate from the user

Vocabulary is already assigned by an expert

Unfamiliar with the technical terminology of a subject

Knowledgeable in the terminology of a particular subject

Broadens the search and set of results

Narrows the search for a refined set of results

Can appear in several areas of a source (e. g. document title, publication titles, subject headings, abstract, summary, and full text)

Typically appear in the subject heading field on the article's record page


Searching by Subject Terms

Subject terms are formal and differ from database to database, so before searching by subject term, the correct term will need to be identified.  Generally, subject terms can be found on an article's record page, or there may be a link labeled "Thesaurus" or "Subject Terms" on the database's advanced search screen:

Once a subject term has been identified, it can be entered into the database's search box, and then the "Subject Terms" field from the drop-down menu to the right of the search box should be selected:

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators in databases are tools that allow researchers to connect keywords to refine, broaden, or narrow a search.  Boolean is an application of database logic, consisting of three operators: AND, OR, and NOT

  • AND - refines a search by looking for the occurrence of multiple search terms in a source
  • OR - expands a search by finding the occurrence of one search term or another
  • NOT -  limits a search by finding one search term while omitting another

Searchable Fields

Fields are elements of a source's record that can be searched in databases. These fields include, but are not limited to the following:

  • document title
  • publication title
  • publication year
  • author(s) name
  • subject heading
  • document text
  • abstract
  • publisher

Phrase Searching

Not all databases process search input the same way; however, a majority do incorporate a phrase searching function.  Phrase searching is another technique that can be used to narrow a search.

To initiate a phrase search, enclose a search term, phrase, or title in quotation marks or parentheses.

Example: "business management" or (business management)

If you have problems accessing any of the library's databases, please refer to the Tech Tips document.