Database Search Tips

Is it difficult to search a database?

Library databases come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, there is no standardized format for a database’s appearance or user interface. However, most databases offer similar search functionality as well as help content and/or search tips.

The High Plains Library District provides access to several different types of databases:

  1. Numeric databases: provides numbers in chart or table format; some provide raw data such as survey results or scientific studies that you can download.
  2. Bibliographic databases: provides brief descriptions, significant dates, citations and list of writings or published works – books, articles, maps, etc.
  3. Full Text databases: often provides the complete text of an original published item for viewing on your computer screen.

How do I choose a Database?

  1. Review the descriptions provided on our Database A to Z page to determine which database(s) match your needs.
  2. The library provides access to general information databases (a database covering everything from decorative origami to consumer product reports to molecular biology) as well as subject specific databases (a database focused on one subject area such as small engine repair).
  3. The library also provides access to age appropriate databases with content tailored to children, young adults and students.
  4. Contact your local librarian. S/he can help you determine which database is the best resource for your information needs. A librarian can also provide you with an introduction to the database as well as providing basic information searching instruction.

Search Tips

  1. Check the HELP or TIPS pages of each database to learn the specifics of that database’s basic operational functions and unique features.
  2. Use Boolean Operators such as AND, OR and NOT to fine-tune search results.
  3. Use truncation and wildcard terms to search for alternative spelling and word forms. See the HELP section of each database to determine what characters act to truncate or add wildcards.
  4. Use phrase search terms to search for exact multiple keyword matches.
  5. Use the subject terms that have been assigned in the database to find related articles. Each database will have its own subject terms.
  6. Try alternate words for a term, such as car, auto, automobile, or vehicle.
  7. Contact your local librarian. S/he can demonstrate a variety of search techniques and help you locate the information you need quickly and efficiently.

Boolean Searching

Broaden or narrow a search by combining words or phrases using the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT.

The Boolean Operator AND narrows a search often producing fewer but more relevant results.

If you are interested in Moroccan food and wanted to find recipes for Moroccan dishes you can perform the following search using both words:

Moroccan AND recipe

A search for Moroccan AND recipe will produce fewer but more relevant results than conducting a search for just the term Moroccan or conducting a search for just the term recipe. You can further narrow your search results with additional terms.

Moroccan AND recipe AND vegetarian

The Boolean Operator OR broadens a search – results contain either term or both terms. If you are interested in exploring information related to a meat-free diet you may want to begin with the following search phrase:

Vegetarian OR Vegan

The Boolean Operator NOT narrows a search – results can contain one term, not the other.

If you are interested in exploring the goddess Venus but do not want result to include information on the planet Venus you can perform the following search:

Venus NOT planet


What is Truncation?

Truncating a search term such as pharmacy allows you to search for a range of word endings within one search.

The search pharmac* will provide results for:

pharmacY, pharmacOLOGY, pharmacEUTICS, pharmacEUTICAL.

The asterisk, * is the truncation symbol used in the above example.

Truncation symbols vary depending on the database. Common truncation symbols are: ! * ? # $.

Review the HELP section of the database you are using for information on the truncation symbols for that specific database.


What are Wildcards?

Wildcards act as truncation symbols within a word. Whereas truncation symbols are used at the end of a search term such as pharmac*, a wildcard is used within a word. The wildcard substitutes one letter in a search word such as cavem?n.

The search cavem?n will provide results for: cavemAn as well as cavemEn.

The question mark, ? is the wildcard symbol used in the above example.

Wildcard symbols vary depending on the database.

Review the HELP section of the database you are using for information on the wildcard symbols for that specific database.

Phrase Searching

What is Phrase Searching?

Phrase (or proximity) searching involves combining two or more common words together to form a specific and unique search term. Phrase searching allows you to combine words so that your search only produces results where the words are next to each other in the order you have specified. The search phrase is usually contained between a set of quotation marks or a set of parentheses depending on the specific database.

The phrase search “zombie apocalypse” for example, if you are looking for information on that particular genre of apocalyptic fiction, will produce more relevant results than a search using a Boolean operator with the same search terms such as: zombie AND apocalypse.

The search (zombie apocalypse) will provide results only where the two words are next to each other in the exact order as your phrase.

The search zombie AND apocalypse will provide results that contain the two words in any order regardless if they are next to each other or not.

Review the HELP section of the database you are using for information on phrase or proximity searching.