Database Searching Guide: Best Practices for Database Searching

List of Best Practices

You will search databases at Columbia most successfully if you keep the following points in mind.

  1. Whenever possible, use the "Advanced" search screen.  This option makes much clearer what fields and options are available to you, which is particularly useful when you want to take advantage of "zoned searching." The basic search screen assumes you know everything or nothing about the database, and if you are coming to it for the first time, you will know nothing.  
  2. Unless you were looking for a specific item and found it, don't be satisfied with just one search. You only have a good sense of the database contents after you have retrieved something.  Examine the records you have found to see what clues they may give as to additional search terms or subject headings you might want to use to broaden or narrow your search.  Then do another search to retrieve more or fewer hits as desired.
  3. Don't rely on just one database. Columbia has a very large collection of information resources.  While there will always be some overlap in content between two given databases in roughly the same field, there is a great deal of unique material as well.  No single database contains all the references and/or content you will need for almost any project.
  4. Use the basic search tools described elsewhere in this guide. Using the tools will not only make your search better, but will help to keep our the scholarly information environment healthy.  The broad success of Google has given impetus to approaches that seek to guide users to what a program believes they will want to see.  We want to retain an environment in which scholars can consciously formulate and evaluate the terms of their searches, and can be confident that they have done a thorough search of a result.  Database vendors watch user activity closely, and use of the tools will encourage them to continue supporting them.
  5. Use a citation management software.  This type of tool can enable you to harvest information as visit successive databases, often along with any attached full text content, so that you can sort through and work with the material of greatest relevance once you have gathered it.