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Information Literacy Concepts : Chapter 4

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Navigating the Information Landscape: Search Engines, Library Databases, Library of Congress Classification, and Discovery Tools


Navigating the Information Landscape:  Search Engines, Library Databases, Library of Congress Classification, and Discovery Tools

Some of your college instructors may have grown up in a very different information environment, using different research tools to find the information they needed.  Instead of electronic databases, they may have used indexes like The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature to identify promising articles and then located the full text of the articles in large bound volumes of print journals in library stacks or on microfilm.  To find print books, they may have used a card catalog.  Card catalogs allowed library patrons to search for print books in one of three ways—alphabetically by title, alphabetically by author, and by the handful of subject headings that were assigned to books based on their content. Browsing physical shelves, browsing subject-related print journals and indexes, and following citations found in the references of books and articles were all essential research strategies.

To some degree these strategies remain essential to conducting research, though the tools have changed dramatically over the last couple of decades and research behaviors have evolved accordingly.  The electronic indexes of today are much more powerful research tools.  Today’s library databases allow you do full text searches of millions of articles at once.  Ebooks have made the large print col-lection optional for many kinds of research. 

Has something been lost in this change from print to electronic collections?  Perhaps so.  Browsing physical books and scholarly journals was once a terrific way to come up with interesting research questions and make connections between different concepts, different experiments, and theories, and this strategy is far less common today.  After all, why browse library shelves for long hours for information when you can quickly find what you need to answer a research question with just a few thoughtful keywords?  In that sense the improvements to the accessibility and search-ability of information may actually put today’s researchers at a bit of a disadvantage.

Making conscious choices about where you do your re-search requires an understanding of what tools are available and when each tool is best suited to addressing a particular research need.  For example, as we discovered earlier, peer-reviewed scholarly literature is the gold standard for many types of research.  A simple vanilla Google search is unlikely to connect you with scholarly literature, so it would be a poor choice of search tool for finding scholarly articles. The Library Catalog is also a poor place to locate peer reviewed scholarly literature, though it might be ideal for finding books and films. Let’s briefly look at the most popular research tools, along with the kinds of content you can expect to find in each.

Library Catalogs

Library catalogs allow researchers to search the local print collection at their library.  Typically the catalog is a useful way to find print books, though ebooks, microform, films, and special collections records are also likely to be included.  A library catalog allows users to search by author, title, journal title, subject, and often by series, ISBN/ISSN, publisher, and call number as well.  A catalog may search all these fields at once, or only the fields you have selected to search.

Note that when doing searches in library catalogs, you are usually not searching the full text of the books and other materials that are indexed by the catalog.  As we said earlier, we are searching though the subject headings each item in the catalog has been assigned, along with a few other basic pieces of information about the book.  Book records in catalogs are thus quite sparse compared to the more extensive indexing found in article databases.  The subject headings assigned to books come from a “controlled vocabulary” that ensures the same language and terminology is used to describe similar topics.  So for example, if your subject search is giving you poor results, you may not be using the correct “controlled vocabulary” to describe your topic. 

Tip: A subject search on “feline” is likely to give you very few results, because books about felines use the controlled vocabulary term “cats.”  One you have found an item on your topic, you can look at the item’s record and see the subject headings that the item has been assigned.  You can then click on the subject heading to see other items in the catalog that has been assigned that same subject heading.

Library Databases

You will often hear about databases in academic libraries. Library databases are an important resource for researchers, both student and professional, and understanding how they work will make your library research in the future easier and more productive.

So what is a library database?  A database is just a search-able collection of information. We use different kinds of databases every day. Apple’s iTunes is a database of songs to buy. is a huge database of products for sale.  Even your cellphone includes a database of family and friends’ names and phone numbers. Library databases are collections of magazine and newspaper articles, book chapters, conference proceedings, and other kinds of digitized research material.

Different library databases contain different kinds of content. Most databases only include articles for a particular subject area. An example of a subject-specific database is the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL,) which contains the full text to over 600 different nursing and allied health related journals. Naturally, the CINAHL database would be a poor place to find English Literature or History articles, but would be excellent for finding high-quality articles for nursing or other health-related areas like nutrition.

Some databases contain only certain formats of material. Global Newsstream contains hundreds of reputable national and international news sources, but only news—no journals, no book chapters.  Academic Video Premium contains only videos. Taylor and Francis E-Book contains only ebooks.  So be aware not only of a database’s subject area, but also of the kinds of material formats it contains.

Finally, a few databases are multi-disciplinary. This means that a single database might cover many different subject areas. These large multi-disciplinary databases are often the best, first stop when doing library research. Academic Search Complete is an example of a multi-disciplinary data-base. You’ll find articles in Academic Search Complete on a wide variety of topics, from political science and psychology to English literature and education.

Because databases contain such a huge amount of content, you will want to think about ways to weed unhelpful items out of your search results.  Before you begin a database search, select any limiters that you’d like to use. Limiters filter out content that you know you don’t need. So for example, do you need articles from only a particular date range? There’s a limiter for that, which will weed out articles outside that particular range. Only interested in scholarly articles? Mark off that limiter, and all but scholarly articles will be weeded out of your search.  While different databases may look different, the tools are all generally pretty similar.

One thing to note is that not every database or database record is available in full text.  A database might contain hundreds or even thousands of different full text journals, but may also include article records where the full text is not available.  These abstract-only article records may not be immediately useful to you, but most libraries have an interlibrary loan service that can quickly request the full text of the articles for you.  If you have questions about using interlibrary loan and accessing items beyond your library’s collections, speak with a librarian.

Tip: Databases typically focus on particular areas of study, such as communications or engineering, and they can be enormously helpful for finding discipline-specific information relevant to your topic.  But ask yourself if your research topic has a multidisciplinary angle and choose your databases accordingly. For example, if you are researching bullying in schools, you may want to do your searching in databases from a number of database categories, as the topic touches on a number of literatures:  Education, Sociology, Child Development & Family Relations, etc.  Think about the whole range of places where published research on your topic is likely to appear.

Discovery Services

Library discovery services are the newest of the tools available to student researchers.  Discovery services allow a user to conduct a search across multiple collections at collection, a piece of microfilm, a newspaper article from the 1800’s, or a scholarly article just published in a well-regarded journal, a discovery service will provide relevant search results.

It has long been a dream of libraries to provide their users with a single search tool that searches across their entire collections, both print and electronic.  Discovery services represent their current best effort at creating such a tool, allowing users to search the full contents of a library’s local print collection and a majority of the database content in a single search.

Discovery services are not without issues that you need to know about.  While the content of most databases sub-scribed to at your local library may appear in its discovery service search results, the content of some databases will not.  Determining which databases are included in your local discovery service and which are not can be difficult.

Another shortcoming of discovery services is the lack of discipline or database-specific search tools.   For example, consider the nursing database CINAHL.  While articles located in CINAHL may appear in keyword searches in your local discovery service, you will not have access to CINAHL’s special subject heading controlled vocabulary tool unless you conduct your search within the database itself.  Or a student researcher interested in finding content on certain kinds of businesses and industries may want to search for information using NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) codes.  These six digit codes can be searched in select business databases, but a discovery service is unlikely to provide that same functionality, even if the articles and reports themselves will appear in discovery service search results.

Tip: For research projects where you are asked to have a mix of books and articles as references, discovery services can be ideal places to begin your research.  Discovery services can also be helpful when your research topic is multidisciplinary in nature (i.e., it touches on the literature from several fields of study,) as it draws in search results from databases in a number of different fields in a single search.


Google is a terrific tool for locating information across the more than 30 Trillion web pages it indexes.  What can you expect to find with a Google search, and what is likely to be excluded?  While Google indexes and connects you to a massive amount of information, it does not necessarily own the content it indexes.  Books and scholarly journals are typically not free, and so Google is a poor way to find these types of sources.  More exactly, Google may lead to you useful book and article citations, but is unlikely to give you full access to those books or articles.  Still, Google can be useful for gaining a global understanding of an unfamiliar topic, and can connect you to useful sources such as professional organizations and federal documents.

TIP: Vanilla Google searches can be made more powerful by taking advantage of a few useful tricks.  For example, you may want to only search a particular domain or website.  Do so by adding “site:” before or after your search terms.  For example: or

You can also have Google provide you with only certain types of results.  For example, if you only want to see PowerPoint presentations or PDFs in your search results, try:

Filetype:pdf or filetype:pptx

Google Scholar

Google Scholar indexes peer-reviewed articles in much the same way that vanilla Google indexes web pages.  Un-fortunately, Google Scholar does not own the content of the articles it indexes.  So while a Google Scholar search may yield genuinely useful, high quality results, the full text of the articles may not be available.  Note, though, that there are two major exceptions:

Content owned by your library

If the article in your Google Scholar search results is owned by your library, you may have access to it in your Google Scholar results.  Click on “settings” and then “library links” to see if your campus is set up to work with Google Scholar, or just check with your local librarians.  A “Google Scholar” link that automatically connects you to content your library owns may be available on your library’s website.

Open Access Journal articles

Because of the high cost of peer-reviewed journal subscriptions, a number of journal publishers have switched to an open access publishing model.  In addition, many universities have adopted open access mandates, requiring that their researchers make copies of their research freely available in institutional repositories.  Accessing these open-access articles requires no special fees or affiliations.

TIP:  The option to do an “advanced search” in Google Scholar currently only appears after an initial search.  Once you have done a search, look for the downward arrow on the right side of the screen to select “advanced search.”  From here you can search for articles by title, author, or publication