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FS 24: The Wonder of Teaching: How to search a database

Library research guide for First Year Seminar, "The Wonder of Teaching," taught by Dr. Katherine Hickey

Learning outcomes

  • Develop search keywords from a written out statement of your research topic
  • Determine whether library books or articles are relevant and authoritative, just by looking at information in the search results.

Choosing search keywords

Choosing search keywords infographic by McMaster University Libraries

"Choosing search keywords" was created by McMaster University Libraries using a CC-BY license. Click to enlarge the infographic.

Remember these tips for choosing search keywords:

  • brainstorm search terms before you actually start searching
  • use concepts (nouns), not the relationships between concepts (verbs)
  • limit the number of search terms that you use at any one time

Try writing out your research topic as a sentence. Underline the most important nouns. These are your search terms.

For example, if you were researching the impact of restorative justice on K-12 students of color, you might write it as:

How are California high schools using restorative justice to address inequalities and help students of color to be successful in school?

You can start making a list of search terms, starting with the words you have underlined:

  • California high schools
  • restorative justice
  • inequalities
  • students of color

How to use a library database

Recognizing some common interface elements across library databases will help you understand immediately how to use a new database.

These interface elements all take advantage of website design conventions.

Diagram of Ebsco database interface with the search box, search results, facets, account login and save action highlighted.

  1. The search bar lets you enter search terms and execute a search by pressing Enter or clicking an icon. Often a drop down menu is present to let you change the type of search to match words in the Author, Subject or other parts of a record.
  2. The result list shows you items that matched your criteria. Clicking on a result usually brings up a record with more information about the item. This way, you can see whether the item is relevant to your topic before you spend time trying to get it and read it.
  3. Facets let you iteratively narrow down your search to get closer and closer to what you want. They are usually on the left side of the result screen and commonly include the ability to limit by date, by type of item (books, articles, etc.) and by source or subject, among others.
  4. You can log in to your account at the top right corner of the page. Many databases offer personalization features. You can save results or entire searches to reuse later.
  5. Most databases let you take action when you find an item that you want. You may be able to email the item to yourself, download it, print it, or view a recommended citation, among other things.

What to look at

Look for these details in library search results to tell whether it is a scholarly source, and whether it is relevant to your topic.

(This example is a book found in the library catalog. Click on it to enlarge the image)

  1. The brief record tells you who created the book and what it is about.
    1. Title: Baroque Music
    2. Author: Claude Palisca (a renowned musicologist)
    3. Publisher: Prentice Hall (a major textbook publisher)
  2. The full record gives more detail about what the book is about.
    1. Subjects: History and criticism of music in the 17th and 18th centuries
    2. Table of contents: there are chapters on different historical musical genres. (This is a great source if you are researching opera in the 18th century)
    3. If you were looking at an article, it might have an abstract - a summary of the author's findings - here instead.
  3. Another part of the record lets you actually get the full text of the item
    1. It is a physical book, available in the 3rd floor of the library. Look up call number ML193.P34 1991 to find it.
    2. If you were looking at an article, there would be a link to download the PDF or check for full text somewhere else.

Now that we've looked at this example, try searching the resources on the Find Information page for sources on your topic. What can you learn about these sources just by looking at the search results?