Database Searching Guide: Zone Searching and Search Refinement

Zone Searching


Databases are divided into multiple fields to facilitate access to their contents (“author,” “title,” “year,” “publisher, ” etc.  Knowing the fields that are available can help you to zero in on specific items you are searching for.

The zones have important implications for subject searching as well, providing points of varying precision and comprehensiveness that can be various combined for effective results.    First, most indexed databases,  come equipped with a controlled vocabulary (known variously as “subject headings,” “tags,” “index terms,” “descriptors,” etc.) .  Those terms are provided by the indexers who create the database.  Searching on the controlled vocabulary produces a very focused and precise search, though it usually leaves out many records that could also be relevant.  You will often not know those particular terms until you have done a preliminary search and examined the records.

The opposite extreme is provided by where databases allow searching of the full text of indexed content.  With access to the entire content, you can search out references to a particular person or phenomenon that would never rise to the level of an index term, or look for phrases or co-occurrences of terminology that reflect ideas or concepts difficult to express in a single descriptor.  At the same time, full-text searching, while holding out the possibility of more comprehensive results,  will often produce a wide range of less relevant content.  Being able to temper a full text search with a search on a controlled-vocabulary can often help to focus your search.

In between is a set of cataloging data of more immediate focus – often referred to in databases as “citation and abstract,” “keywords,” or “all fields except full text.”  

The combined set of these fields can be likened to a target, with the concentric areas of increasingly sharp focus.  It is usually easiest to identify and then combine them by going the advanced screen of any database, which usually provides several boxes for search terms, equipped with a drop-down menu to allow you to select the zone in which particular terms should be placed.

Closely related is the ability to refine a search by selecting some broad category – language, format, date, academic level, etc.   These are often available as drop down categories on an advanced or even simple search screen, but in other databases are presented as check boxes alongside the result list. 

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