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How to Choose and Use Databases

Search skills that help you find what you're looking for.

What's in the Database?

The key to finding the right database is knowing what's in it. Here are three questions to ask about any database before you use it.

1.  What Subject Area(s) Does It Cover?

Searching for engineering articles in APA PsycInfo won't get you far. Note what subject areas your database covers to ensure that you are using the correct database for your topic.

In addition, your choice of database will influence the kind of analysis you're likely to find. Searching for "marijuana legalization" will get very different results if you use PubMed (medical studies), HeinOnline (law-related issues), or Music Index (mostly articles from Rolling Stone).

2.  What Date Range Does It Cover?

Most databases only cover materials published from the 1990's on; there's usually a specific cutoff date. If you're looking for articles or research from before that date, you'll need to use a different database (Readers' Guide Retro or New York Times Historical).

In a few databases, you also need to ask "How recent does it get?" Databases of historical materials usually don't go up to the present and some databases simply exclude the most recent year or two of all journal articles.

3.  What Types of Material Does It Cover?

Most databases index scholarly journal articles, but many cover other types of content. Some common material types include:

  • Magazine or newspaper articles
  • Books
  • Book chapters
  • Dissertations
  • Conference papers
  • Statistical data
  • Images, audio, or video