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Search Tips for Databases: General

About Databases


Many of you will use the Colby libraries online resources, which included databases.

A database is software that allows people to search, sort, and retreive information. Our entire world is run by databases - information on products sold by Amazon are stored in databases, as is information used by Netflix for their movies, Google stores information on webpages in databases and Moodle at Colby is a database. 

Some scholarly databases are highly organized and bring together material focused on a particular field or genre.  Others, like Academic Search Complete allows you to search a number of underlying databases, with some degree of diminished functionality.  

The libraries has many different databases, and they may seem to differ greatly at first glance. However, aside from content, most databases operate in a fairly similar way in regards to discovery and searching.

If you are familiar with a set of basic techniques for structuring and focusing your search in any of them, you can quickly master almost anything you will encounter, even if that sometimes means discovering that a particular feature is not supported by a given resource.  

This guide seeks to introduce you to those basic techniques.  

General tips

  1. Use asterisk * at end of root words: predat* (gives you predator, predators, predation)
  2. Use quotes around a phrase if words must be together: "global warming"

Results too narrow?

  1. Don't use so many terms. Keep it simple and broad to start. Less is more.
  2. Don't use words like "aspects", "effects", "influence". These are ideas that are assumed in a paper and may not be used in the abstract. Instead use the word for the effect itself.
  3. Use just the genus name if the genus/species yields little.
  4. Use both common and scientific names: MAPLE or ACER
  5. Use truncation: conserv*  will yield conserve, conservation, conserving
  6. Look for related terms in your results to expand your topic.

Results too broad?

  1. Add terms one at a time for additional aspects.
  2. Use quotes (usually) around words in a phrase
  3. Choose your keyword(s) to appear specifically in the TITLE field. The article will be more relevant.
  4. Limit to ENGLISH
  5. Limit to selected subject areas if available (Scopus)
  6. Limit to REVIEW articles to get an overview

Search more effectively

Keep your search simple

  • Search the most obvious, broad term first; see what you get. You can narrow your results from there.
  • Don't complicate your search. 1-2 terms may suffice.
  • If you need to retrieve more information, then expand the number of terms you use (see next step).

Search on key concepts (using synonyms if necessary) one at a time

  • Define your topic into 1-3 key concepts and search each separately.
  • Example: Effect of forest fires on animals. Chart terms relating to each concept:
Concept 1 Concept 2
fire, fires fauna
blaze, blazes, blazing mammal, mammals
burns, burning bird, birds

Use AND, OR, NOT accurately:

  • OR combines related terms of one concept, (FIRE* OR BLAZ* OR BURN*) - any one of those terms can be present in the result set
  • AND combines different concepts together - both conditions must exist in your result set
  • Search using wildcards:
Search Concept 1 Set #1 FIRE* OR BLAZ* OR BURN*
Search Concept 2 Set #2 FAUNA OR MAMMAL* OR BIRD*
Combine both concepts Set #3 #1 AND # 2


  • Results in Set #3 are articles relating to BOTH the concepts of fire AND animals
    » "Drought, fires, and large mammals"

Build your sets of concepts, then combine them as needed

  • You may choose to search additional terms or concepts to refine your results
  • Use NOT to eliminate an aspect of no interest
Search a third concept Set #4 grassland* or prairie*
Omit 3rd concept from previous results Set #5 #3 NOT #4
  • Your results will encompass the idea of fire AND animals, but NOT involving grasslands

The SEARCH HISTORY command shows your previous searches. You can return to them, or combine them in different combinations as you refine your search.

Don't waste time getting nowhere. After 10-15 min., ask an SRS librarian for help!


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