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How to Start Your Research | Search Library Databases

Tips and tools for starting your research and searching for information in library databases and catalogs.

Your Librarian

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Amanda Walch
Raugust Library, Reference & Instruction Office
701-252-3467 ext. 5441

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In This Section

magnifying glass iconIn this section, you'll find help with:

What's a Database?

Video posted on YouTube by Yavapai College Library.

A tool for finding information

A library database is a tool that collects and organizes information so that we can find it more easily. Databases contain records for articles from newspapers, magazines, trade journals, and academic journals, as well as records for other items such as videos, conference proceedings, dissertations, book chapters, and more. A database record contains citation information for articles and other items, and may also point to the full text of the resource. Most databases will have the full-text for some items, but not for others. Some databases are entirely full-text; others have none at all. 

Databases can be general and cover many subjects or focus on specific subjects or types of resources. Deciding which database to search depends on what kind of research you’re doing.

  • General databases cover many different subjects and contain many different kinds of resources. These are good databases to search when you’re starting your research or if your topic is interdisciplinary.
    • Examples: Academic Search Premier, Academic OneFile, and reference databases like Credo
  • Subject-specific databases databases have more focused coverage on one or several subjects. These databases are useful when you’re looking for articles within a particular field or subject area.
    • Examples: CINAHL (nursing), PsycArticles (psychology), ERIC (education), and JSTOR (humanities subjects)
  • Special format databases contain a specific type of resource. If you know you need a specific kind of source to support your arguments, these databases will be useful.
    • Examples: US Newsstream (news articles), EBSCO SWOT Analyses (SWOT analyses), or GPO Monthly Catalog (government reports and publications)

Where to Find Databases

There are several ways to get to relevant databases. The table below will help you get your bearings and find a path that works for your research.

All Databases List

An alphabetical list of all of the databases we have access to.

It can be sorted by subject and by the type of source you're looking for.


Research Guides

Resource suggestions and search tips by subject. Guides exist for each major and program on campus, plus a few more!

Useful databases are in the "Find Articles" section of a Guide.


Google vs. Library Databases

When you search Google, do you type in a full-sentence question? No shame - it works there because Google has a sophisticated algorithm that can parse through your question to find the most important words, search with those terms, and ditch the rest. Google even corrects your spelling and searches what it thinks you mean based on your search history.

Library databases, however, can't do that.

Instead, you have to do the first step of parsing out the most important words yourself - which is to say, you'll have to develop keywords. Keywords are search terms that are the most essential words in your research question, topic, or thesis statement.

magnifying class iconDeveloping Keywords:

  1. Locate the essential words in your research question, problem statement, hypothesis, or thesis.
    • What are the nouns, proper nouns, and action verbs that make up your question?
    • What are the major concepts or themes that your question addresses?
  2. Think of a few synonyms or related terms for each keyword.
  3. Consider how combining your keywords will change your search results.
    • Which words will it be useful to search together?

How to Search Databases

Mix and match your keywords - and your strategies.

Watch this quick video and click on each heading below to learn more about some useful search strategies. As you search, try a few of these strategies at the same time! These strategies can help you create complex, specific searches and gather focused information on your topic.

Video posted on YouTube by Virginia Tech Libraries under a Creative Commons license.


Is your topic a phrase or a string of words?

To search for a phrase in which word order matters, put quotation marks (" ") around your search terms.

  • For example: "social media" ; "higher education" ; "reality television"

Connect your search terms

Boolean operators ANDOR, and NOT can help you combine and exclude terms from your searches. They're used directly in a database's search bar, between your keywords.

Some databases will have multiple search boxes so that you can split up your search terms and select a Boolean operator from a drop-down menu to combine the terms.

  • AND is great when your topic has a few aspects that you're trying to research the connections between
    • For example, video games AND violence
  • OR is ideal for including synonyms or related terms in one search
    • For example, lions OR tigers
  • NOT is used when you want to exclude some terms from your results
    • For example, enterprise NOT star trek

Remember Venn Diagrams? They're a great way to visualize what the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT can do for your research.

chart describing Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT with venn diagrams


One step further

You can combine phrase searching and more than one Boolean operator to make complex, specific searches.

Placing parentheses () around your search terms is a way to group concepts and tell the database exactly what order to use when processing your search. It's just like the idea of order of operations in mathematics.

  • (lions OR Tigers) AND poaching
  • "video games" AND (violence OR aggression)
  • "higher education" AND testing NOT gre

Use the terms librarians use to classify and organize information!

As you browse the catalog or a database and find a resource that looks promising, look for hyperlinked subjects, also called subject headings. These subject headings can be found in the detailed record for an article--what you get to when you click on a title from your search results list.

Use what you've already found to find more

This strategy involves tracking down the sources that an article (or any piece of information) cites, or following a citation chain. This strategy is a great example of why it's important to cite your sources - citations help your readers find information that is similar or crucial to your own arguments. When you find an article or source that is relevant to your research, take a look at the sources they're citing!

Database Tutorials

Check out these video tutorials for the three major database platforms we use at UJ: EBSCO, ProQuest, and Gale:

Basic Search tutorial for EBSCOhost databases such as Academic Search Premier, CINAHL, and ERIC.

Basic search tutorial for ProQuest databases such as PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES, and US Newsstream.

A quick overview of some features of Gale databases such as Academic OneFile and Literature Resource Center.