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J. Robert Van Pelt and John and Ruanne Opie Library

UN1015 Composition

What is a database?

A database in this context is a collection of resources. These resources were typically published by separate entities, but brought together on this platform that lays advanced search tools over the top and then makes this content available to subscribers (it's a lot like Netflix, Hulu, etc. - these tools bring together content from separate creators then makes it available and searchable to subscribers). Databases vary in scope - some are very narrow and some are very broad.

Why use a database?

It may seem like an extra step - why use a database when I can google? - but databases offer quite a few advantages once you get the hang of them.

  1. Information is curated.
    This is one of the primary benefits. Resources in a database might be collected based on topic, source type, or something different, but information must fit specific criteria to be in a database. If you only want sources on a specific topic, you can find a database on that topic! For example, the database ERIC only collects articles on education.

    Please note: this does not mean that it is always more reliable than information found elsewhere. Some databases are intentionally broad so the criteria they use for inclusion is also broad. This will vary by database.
  2. More robust search tools.
    Most databases have clear, explicit tools you can use to focus your search and narrow your results. This can eliminate a lot of noise in your search. There are also some common commands you can use across databases (see below).
  3. Access to resources that are otherwise behind paywalls.
    Many of the databases that the library provides access to are subscription based. Were you to just search online for similar topics/articles, you would hit a paywall.
  4. Tools for saving & citing sources.
    Many databases add value by building in tools that allow you to easily save and cite your sources.

Navigate to VPOL databases

Use the search bar on the library home page to navigate to or search for a database. Click on the green Databases A-Z tab. Please note: this is just a list of database titles and descriptions. Do not search your topic here! Once you select a database, you can search within it for your topic.

To browse the databases, click on Additional Search Options below the search bar. On the next screen, you will be able to sort the databases by subject area.

Select a database

On the Databases A-Z page, use the Subjects drop-down menu to explore the databases our library has access to. Once you've found one that looks relevant, click on it's title to jump to the database. If you're off campus, you many be asked to log in with your ISO username & password at this stage.

Advanced Search Tricks

Databases work significantly better when searching by keyword. Unlike Google and similar tools, they don't do much analysis behind the scenes on your search. This means that when you search words like if, does, the, all of these are treated as relevant to the search. Some also don't look for variations on words. Most do not use your previous search and browsing history to impact your results (this is great for privacy!)

In some ways, this can make database searching feel imprecise and clunky compared to tools you're used to. But once you get the hang of it, these differences can be incredibly powerful. In short, these tools will search EXACTLY what you ask them too - they trust you as the researcher to know what you need.

The trick to any search is finding a balance between comprehension (Did I find enough sources?) and precision (Are these sources on topic?). Some topics require you to lean more to one of these directions - it takes some experimenting to figure out what you need for any given topic.

There are many commands that can make searches more precise. Some simple ones include:

  • AND - use this in between two words or concepts. ex. cars AND emissions
  • OR - use this between synonyms. You don't always know what words an author will use to describe a concept and you want to catch articles that use different words for the same same (or similar) ideas. ex. cars OR vehicles
  • NOT - use to get rid of unrelated results. If there are many off-topic results, look for a word or concept that they all have in common that wouldn't be in the results you want. ex. emissions NOT factories
  • " " - use quotation marks around an exact phrase. Use if your search includes words that are common separately but have a very specific meaning when together. ex. "climate change"
  • * -  use the asterisk to truncate a word. If you want to find variations of a word, remove the end letters and replace with the asterisk. ex. develop* will return results with develop, development, developing, develops, etc. 
  • Use advanced search options in databases to search just by abstract - use this if you're getting too many results. Often if a concept is important to an article, it will appear in the abstract. So searching in this rather than full text will find articles where this concept is a major focus.

These tricks can all be connected to create complex searches. Use parentheses to tell the database what order to process the commands (like in math and programming!) For example:

(emissions AND (car* OR vehicle*)) NOT "all terrain"

This search will find articles about car and vehicle emissions but will remove articles that discuss all terrain vehicles.