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How to Use Your Library's Online Databases

By Kelvin Mak |

So you're convinced and want to give the library’s digital resources a try. But what if you don’t know how to get started? Fear not, the process is simple.

Step One: Register for a Library Account

The first step to any research session starts with a library card. If you don’t have one yet, all you need is a driver’s license (or another piece of photo ID) to register. Keep it handy, as you will need your card number to log into the system to access any digital resources. You will also be given a temporary password that you can change.

Step Two: Sign-in

Simply navigate to the library’s website, look for the link that takes you to the databases (in some cases this may be under a “resources” section), and you will be prompted to enter your library card number and password to sign in.

The biggest advantage of using online resources is convenience—that is, you can sign in from any computer that is connected to the internet. However, this doesn’t mean there is no advantage to researching in person and at the library. Sword suggests that visiting the library still offers its benefits, as there are experts there to help if any questions arise. Besides, librarians are always up for a chat, and may just offer you a different perspective that you didn’t know you needed.

Step Three: Choosing the right database

Chances are your library will have subscribed to a variety of databases. If that makes you feel overwhelmed, don’t be. They are categorized into subjects or fields of study. Business oriented databases, like Gale’s Business and Economic Theory Collection, should be useful to most if not all business owners; while there are also more field-specific ones, like the Consumer Health Complete database that Sword showed the physiotherapy clinic.

You may think that a simple Google search can replicate most of these results, but Sword emphasizes that every piece of information in the database is credible, meaning that it has been proofed, checked, and especially in the cases of journal articles, peer-reviewed. The credibility—and accuracy—between a blog entry and an academic report is huge. Besides, most of these academic articles cost money to access if you’re not signed into your library account.

Sword also suggests that it is important to refrain from “tunnel-vision” and rely on a specific database, then settling for perhaps some outdated or less useful information. Rather, remember that there are plenty of databases that may cover the same topics, sometimes from different angles. Take the time to search through the relevant ones before deciding on what information is the most valuable.

Step Four: Searching the database

Now that you've logged into the database, the trick is to find what you’re looking for. As those who have spent any amount of time on Google can probably attest, the key to success is typing in the “right words"—your search terms. Otherwise, you may spend a lot more time browsing than you had originally planned.

Searchers often can get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information in a database. In some cases, that may be good—if you’re only starting to learn about a certain subject and don’t mind going through a broad range of articles—or in other cases it may not be as helpful, such as when you know exactly what you’re looking for, and all the extra search results are just impeding you from getting to the right article.

So how can you best tailor your database search so that the amount and quality of the results come close to what you want? While there’s no exact science to it, there are a few handy tips to keep in mind.

  • Use Search Operators: Most databases follow the Boolean search logic. In layman’s terms, this mean you can control your search to a greater extent by using the following words: “and”, “or”, “not.”

    Let’s say you want to search for information on loans and grants. Typing in “loans OR grants” will give you articles containing either of the words. Searching for “loans AND grants”, meanwhile, will result in articles that contain both those words. Whereas searching for “loans NOT grants” will limit results to only articles containing the word loans. In this last case, any articles containing both words will be filtered out, since you’ve specified to exclude any articles with the word grants in it, even if the word loans appears in the article.

    Another handy operator to use is quotation marks. Say you want to search for a particular phrase - for example, “Think Different”, Apple Computers' famous advertising slogan. Even if you type in think AND different in the search box, you will still have to sift through articles containing both of those words, but not necessarily together and in sequence. The trick is to use quotation marks. Put quotes around a set of words, and the search engine will know you’re only looking for those words together, and in that order.

  • Advanced Search: Too often, people overlook the “advanced search” function, perhaps out of the fear that by defining too many criteria, the net may be cast too narrowly. However, the reality is that if you set your parameters right, advanced search is a flexible tool that can net you almost exactly the results you’re looking for. In addition to searching for terms, you can define other criteria such as date of the publication, document type (journal, article, etc.), and publication title. If you know specifically what you are looking for, the advanced search is a great time saver, preventing you from sifting through mountains of results.
  • Other tools: Sometimes your search cannot be done in one session. Many databases have tools to help you keep track, such as the save search function. This allows your search results to be saved for your next login, so you don’t have to define all the parameters again. Or "search alert", which notifies you, through email, when new publications that match your search criteria enter the database.

Step Five: Using the article(s) you find

So you've found the article or paper that you want. Many times you need to do more than just read it. Databases have handy tools to help you.

If you need to email the article, either to yourself or a colleague, there is an "email" button.

Perhaps you need to download the article to your computer for later on, when you may not have access to the internet: instead of copy and pasting, which can be cumbersome considering that it may be difficult to highlight just the article itself, a click on the download button will automatically save the article onto your computer.

If you need to cite the article formally, instead of taking the time to look up specific works cited formats, databases can help you cite the article in a particular style, and all you’re left to do is copy and paste that citation.

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