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Introduction to library research in the arts: Navigating interfaces

An introduction to research concepts and techniques for University of Redlands students in fine, literary and performing arts, developed as an Open Educational Resource (OER)

Learning objective

  • Be able to use a library database that you've never seen before.

Questions to Consider

  • When you visit a website you have never used before, how do you know where to go and what to do?

The power of conventions

Well-designed websites make it easy for users to recognize how to use the website to meet their needs.

The sites tap into design conventions, commonly held expectations about what objects should be able to do in a given situation.

In the world of technology, design elements often become conventions because a popular program or website finds a solution that works, and other sites come to copy it.

Consider how Google's "minimalist" interface, featuring a large search box with few alternatives, became a convention for search engines. During the 1990s, more and more people switched to Google from older engines such as Yahoo, Excite and Lycos.

Yahoo home page in 2006

This was Yahoo's home page in the mid 2000s. And this was Google's:

Google home page in 2006

Today Google's "single search box" and "clean" design is a ubiquitous presence on most websites and even dominates library interface design, though the convention originated in a commercial setting.

Further reading

Common interface elements

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.

Go beyond JSTORing

Sometimes graduating seniors confess that they have never used any library databases other than JSTOR.

They learned to use JSTOR as first-years, or even in high school, and loved that it included the full text of articles. They went back to JSTOR again and again in other classes, even when they had a hard time finding relevant results.

Other databases go into greater depth in specific disciplines. For example, RILM (pictured above) is a music research database that covers hard-to-find conference proceedings and dissertations as well as music journals.

Don't hesitate to go beyond the databases you're used to using. Depending on what you're researching, a more specialized database may be just what you need.

Key point

  • Once you're used to the visual conventions of library databases, you can rely on them to find your way around a database you've never used before.