How to Use a Database: An Introduction

Online databases are convenient and reliable sources of information for the completion of research projects. They can house thousands of books, journal articles, magazines, and art collections all within one easily searchable platform. The large scope of these databases, however, means that they may not always be the simplest sources to navigate. Here are some tips on how to efficiently use databases like JSTOR and WorldCat for a research project.

Take Advantage of Full-Text Searching

Most databases support full-text searching on their website, meaning that you can type in full words, phrases, or sentences to find a reputable source. Start With a General Search If you begin researching too specific of a topic, you may end up with very few search results.

Do an Advanced Search

Once you have narrowed down a topic, try an advanced search. Most databases have an advanced search option that lets you choose more specific search criteria. For example, options to look for certain source formats (e.g. book, video, image, journal, etc.) and to narrow your search to sources published on or before a certain year.

Try Boolean Operators

“Boolean operators,” or the words “AND,” “OR,” or “NOT,” can be helpful when using the advanced search feature and when inputting multiple words into your search. Using the operator AND will retrieve articles that mention both terms somewhere in the article. Using OR between the two terms will retrieve articles that mention either term. If you wanted to exclude terms, you would use the Boolean operator NOT. For example, if you were writing a paper on the Civil Rights Movement, but not on Martin Luther King, Jr., you would type “NOT Martin Luther King.” If Pinpointing a Source, Be Specific If you know what source you are looking for already, try searching by author, title, identifying number (books have ISBN, journals have DOI), or a combination of any of the above.

Keywords Are Your Friend

If you are unsure of the specific source you would like to use, but know what subject your paper is covering, try using specific keywords. For example, if your paper is on Charles Darwin, you could use relevant keywords such as “Origin of Species,” “H.M.S. Beagle,” or “Darwinism.” You can also use phrases, such as “Charles Darwin Galapagos.” The best thing to do here is to be as specific as possible. Use keywords that are closely related to your topic.

Need Primary Sources?

When looking for primary sources, you should utilize archives and special collections. These types of databases are more likely to hold older sources, and works published during the event you are researching. A good place to look is the National Archives at, or another large research library. Keep in mind that primary sources don’t necessarily have to be books. They could be maps, letters, photographs, paintings, etc.

Need Secondary Sources?

When looking for secondary sources, start your research by looking for the most recent source related to your topic. Make sure that your argument/thesis still fits in with current academic research on the subject. New ideas and breakthroughs get published every day!

Avoid Wikipedia, If Possible

While a good place to get a general idea of your topic, it is not always a reliable container of sources. Instead, try using online encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Britannica.

Deciding on a Database

If you’re trying to decide which database to use, see if you can find one that relates to your specific subject area. For instance, Brigham Young University has a database for primary sources related to British History from the years 1486-1688. It is also helpful to ask a librarian for assistance.

Don’t Forget to Cite the Source, Not the Database

Knowing what information to use when creating citations can be confusing. Just remember that you should cite the resource you are using and not the database itself. For example, if you used JSTOR to find information on dinosaurs, you would cite the book chapter or journal article found in your search. In MLA format, the database you used is mentioned at the end of the citation. In APA format and Chicago style, your teacher can see that you used a database by looking that the URL you include.

These tips on using a database are helpful, but the best way to learn is to jump onto a database and try it out for yourself. Happy researching!