Searching electronic databases requires the following:

Searchable Fields/ Searching Techniques

Understanding the searching protocol of each database is important for a successful search. Most databases offer a number of access points such as author, title, subject, publisher, etc. As discussed in another section, databases have controlled vocabularies to be used in searching by subject. Help screens and database tutorials are usually available on each database.

Field Searching: Author/Title/Subject
When conducting author, title, or subject searches, a computer system searches a database according to the instructions of the researcher. When a researcher enters terms in specific fields, the computer retrieves information from only those fields identified:

Keyword Searching
Keyword searching allows you to use natural language key terms and locates these terms in the key fields of a bibliographic record. These key fields vary with each database but usually include author, title, subject, call number, publisher, and note fields such as summary or content notes. Use keyword search:

Reminder: Once you have located one record specific to your research topic, review the subject heading or descriptor fields. In those fields you will find the controlled vocabulary terms. Reenter your search using the controlled vocabulary terms. With the Library of Congress subject headings, only the main heading needs to be searched.  It is important to remember that a key term in one database may not be the term used in another database. For example, if you are researching the topic teenagers in ERIC, the thesaurus will refer you to the term adolescence.

Additional Searching Techniques

Qualifying Limits: Most databases will allow you to qualify your search through limiting the search parameters by:

Truncation: Sometimes in searching words in a database, you would like to retrieve the records of all variations of a word, such as sociological, sociology, or sociological.  Most databases allow for trunk of words to be searched.  The symbols can vary between databases ($, ?, +, #, * are most frequently used).

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators are used in searching electronic databases. Boolean operators help the computer understand the relationships between terms. Combining search terms using the words AND, OR, and NOT sets up the relationship between the terms:

Practice Activities

Boolean Operators

1. Create search command combining descriptor terms or keywords by using boolean operators: AND; OR; and NOT. Examples are: art AND social aspects; psychologist OR psychiatrist;  music performance NOT music education  

2. Create a search command combing descriptor terms or keywords by using both the AND and OR boolean operators.
Example:  art AND (social aspects OR political aspects)


3. Truncate the following terms for a keyword search in the online catalog.

behavior and behaviour: (British or American word)

psychologist or psychology or psychological

Documenting your research

As you begin your research, it is important to document your searches. Your professor will offer more detailed guidance, but it is important to document the database, key terms or subject headings searched, and the number of records retrieved. Troubleshooting begins with a review of the database and search term, in order to find out why too many or too few records were retrieved with any one search.



Library Online Catalog

Once you have a basic research topic, your library research can begin. You may want to consult an encyclopedia or dictionary in the Libraries' reference collection to assist you in locating terms that best suit your topic.

The next step is to locate books that are owned by a library within your area. The CAT, the Penn State University Libraries online catalog, is available from remote access at the following URL: Click on The CAT and review the search options presented to you. Library catalogs usually allow searches by author, title, subject headings, and key terms.  Some catalogs allow searches using qualifiers that narrow the results by applying limits to the search. These limits may include format, language, and dates. Check the Library of Congress Subject Heading volumes to locate the terms recommended.

Practice Activities

1. Search The CAT to locate all dissertations written at Penn State in your field.

Subscription Databases: Authentication

Most electronic databases are available through subscription.  A login and password are required for anyone wanting to access these databases.  The login and password system restricts use of the electronic products to Penn State users.  Students accessing these databases from the Libraries can access the databases without authentication.

In accessing the electronic databases, you may be asked to enter your Access User ID and Password.  Your Access User ID is the part of your Penn State e-mail address before, and the Password is the same password for that account.  For more thorough instructions, see the Remote Access Tips on the Librariesí web site.  In the instructions on searching databases in this tutorial, you may assume that this procedure for login/password is required prior to entering any of the Librariesí subscription databases.

FirstSearch Databases

Searching FirstSearch Databases

1. Choose Advanced Searching.

2. You will be given three windows in which to type search terms.  With each window is a corresponding drop down menu to choose the type of field search that you want (keyword, author, title, title phrase, subject, etc.)
3. Limit your search by year, record type, language as needed.
4. Click on the search button to review the results of your search.
5. Throughout FirstSearch, the button with a "?" offers help, while the "i" next to a database offers a complete summary and tutorial on searching that particular database.

On the Results page, you will find a listing of the first ten records, along with menus to navigate within this database:

Left margin menu buttons: The left menu includes:

Top menu: Above a detailed record are links to:

Additional FirstSearch Techniques

Sort: From the List of Records screen, most databases allow for sorting searches between 2 and 500 records by number of libraries, author, date, source, and title.

Limit: From the List of Records screen, Most databases allow for limiting searches by author, subject headings, year, record type, language, and items in your library.

Rank: At the Advanced Search screen, FirstSearch databases allow for the following options: no ranking; ranking by relevance; and date. Ranking by relevance organizes the results of a search based on these criteria:

Mark Records:
1. Choose the preferred records by clicking on the boxes; Mark All marks all records.
2. Click on Marked Records to bring up list; this list can be emailed or printed.
3. Click on Detailed to create the full records of all titles on the list.
4. Clear Marks removes the marked records.

Searching Individual FirstSearch Databases 

WorldCat: WorldCat is a database containing all the records cataloged by the OCLC member libraries. WorldCat offers access to over 48 million bibliographic records for materials published in over 400 languages.  Only whole item materials are entered into this database including books, music scores, videotapes, sound recordings, manuscripts, computer programs and files, journals, magazines, newspapers, maps, films, and slides. It does NOT include articles from periodical indexes.

Art Index: Art Index is one of two electronic databases based on the Art Index (Arts & Humanities, Pattee, 2nd Floor - Abstracts & Indexes, Z5937.A78).  Art Index offers an international perspective on many art subjects and indexes over 400 of the leading art publications from around the world. 

Humanities Index: Humanities Index is the electronic version of Humanities Index (Arts & Humanities, Pattee, 2nd Floor - Abstracts & Indexes, AI3.R5) that indexes over 465 periodicals.

Practice Activities

1.     Find three books on your topic in WorldCat.

Other Electronic Databases

Art Index Retrospective: Art Index Retrospective is one of two electronic databases based on the Art Index (see above).  Art Index offers an international perspective on many art subjects and indexes over 400 of the leading art publications from around the world. 

ARTbibliographies Modern: ARTbibliographies Modern indexes literature about the modern and contemporary visual arts beginning with Impressionism in the late 19th-century, up to the most recent works and trends. Photography is covered from its invention in 1839 to the present. A particular emphasis is placed upon adding new and lesser-known artists and on the coverage of foreign-language literature. This database provides indexing and abstracts of journal articles, exhibition reviews, and selected books, essays, exhibition catalogs, and dissertations.

Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals: The Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals indexes more than 2,800 periodicals published worldwide. 

The results of an Avery search can be manipulated:

Bibliography of the History of Art: The Bibliography of the History of Art indexes and abstracts art-related books, conference proceedings, dissertations, and articles from 2500 periodicals, including and extending the coverage of its two predecessor art indexes: RAA (Repertoire d'Art et d'Archeologie) from 1973 to 1989 and RILA (International Repertory of the Literature of Art) from 1975 to 1989.

Dissertations Abstracts: Dissertations Abstracts is the electronic version of Dissertation Abstracts International (Pattee - Stacks 2, Z5055.U5A53).  Dissertation Abstracts indexes dissertations from most institutions within the United States. Masters theses written at U.S. institutions are selectively included.  In addition, the database selectively includes master's theses and dissertations from Canada, Great Britain, and Europe.  

Wilson Education Abstracts Full Text: Wilson Education Abstracts Full Text covers almost 500 periodicals in primary, secondary, and higher education and behavioral sciences since 1983, with full text for 133 periodicals since 1996.  Education Abstracts is the electronic version of Education Index (Educ. & Behav. Sci., 5th Floor Paterno- Reference Collection, Z5813.E23) with the addition of abstracts.  Provides citations for every article of at least one column in length taken from English-language periodicals and yearbooks published in the United States and elsewhere. The database also includes selected series and supplements and book review citations.

ERIC: ERIC is an electronic database that contains annotated references to nonjournal material listed in the monthly Resources in Education (RIE; Annex, Z5811.R45) and journal articles listed in the monthly Current Index to Journals in Education (CIJE; Annex, Z5813.C8). Resources in Education are for the most part unpublished documents collection by the ERIC Clearinghouse that are available on microfiche.  ERIC records include abstracts. 

ProQuest: ProQuest is a multidisciplinary database including summaries to articles from over 5,000 publications (many newspapers and popular magazines as well as some core research journals).  It contains full text (word file with no photos or tables) or images (looks like real paper publication) to over 2,000 journals, and full text to 150+ newspapers.  ProQuest includes the following databases: ABI/Inform (business trade and research journals), National Newspapers, ProQuest Nursing Journals, ProQuest Psychology Journals, and Research Library Newspapers, Periodicals, and Peer-Reviewed Journals.

PsycINFO: PsycINFO is the electronic version of Psychological Abstracts (Annex, BF1.P65), produced by the American Psychological Association.  It provides indexing for international material covering all aspects of psychology and its application in other fields.

Social Sciences Abstracts: Social Sciences Abstracts is the electronic version of Social Sciences Index (Social Sciences, 2nd Floor Paterno - Reference Collection, AI3.R515).  It indexes major English language publications in the social sciences.

Sociological Abstracts: Sociological Abstracts is the electronic version of Sociological Abstracts (Social Sciences, 2nd Floor Paterno - Reference Collection, HM1.S67), produced by the American Sociological Association.  It includes international coverage of sociology and related disciplines in the behavioral sciences.

Web of Science: Web of Science provides access to electronic versions of Arts and Humanities Citation Index (Annex, Z5931.A78), Social Sciences Citation Index (Social Sciences, 2nd Floor Paterno - Reference Collection, Z7163.S6), and Science Citation Index (Life Sciences, 4th Floor Paterno - Abstracts & Indexes, Z7401.S365).  Citation indexes are unusual because their primary function is to show cited references ≠ that is, they list all citations referenced in an article. You may search to find out: 1. where a work has been cited; 2. all titles cited in the references; and 3. sources that have been cited by author. Although not specifically a subject database, you may use Web of Science to locate materials by subject.

Electronic Journal Packages

There are several electronic journal packages accessible from the E-Resource List.  These packages allow access to individual issues of electronic journals and a search engine to search that package by subject.  Two humanities packages of interest are JSTOR and Project Muse.

JSTOR: JSTOR is an archive of the backfiles of over 242 scholarly journals in 26 disciplines. The journal articles are available in a format which includes images.

Project Muse: Project Muse is an electronic journal package that includes nearly 200 electronic journals published by Johns Hopkins University Press and 30 other scholarly publishers.