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Research Guides

Information Literacy & Library Research: Using Databases

Information literacy is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to identify, locate and evaluate, and then legally and responsibly use and share that information.

What is a Database?

Databases are organized collections of related information. Every database contains only certain types and amounts of information such as:

  • Specific kinds of documents (e.g., journals, magazines, books, software)
  • Certain subject areas (e.g., sociology, music, chemistry)
  • Certain time periods (e.g., current, 1990 to present, historic)
  • Records available in several languages
  • Certain publication types (e.g., scholarly, popular, newspapers)
  • Certain amounts of information available (e.g., whole article or just a brief description and abstract)

Note for INFO 1010:

For the purpose of grading consistency, the Module 3 assignment in INFO 1010 will use Academic Search Ultimate. This is an example of a general database that has a little bit of everything, so there should be something for all. For your ENGL 2010 papers, you might want to check out other subject-specific databases (see the "Subject Databases" tab in the next section for more). These databases are carefully curated collections that can help you find the sources you need to complete your INFO 1010 assignments, as well as your ENGL 2010 paper. Ask your INFO 1010 instructor about subject-specific databases that relate to your paper topic if you'd like to try one out.


Academic Search Ultimate is a generic database that has magazine and journal articles from many different disciplines. Because this database has a little bit of everything, it is the database taught in the INFO 1010 Information Literacy class. Academic Search Ultimate is a really good place to start your research, or for researching general topics. It can help point your research in the right direction, but might not have enough on a given subject to be the only database used in the research process. For more in-depth research you can use the discipline-specific databases that have articles for specialized topics such as medicine, art, education, etc. (see tab for Subject Databases in this reading).

Finding the Database

The easiest way to access any of the Sherratt library databases is to go to the Find a Database link under the "Search the Library" search bar on the Library’s homepage ( Clicking this link brings you to the Databases page that lists all of the library's databases.

Find a Database button highlighted on the library's homepage.

Academic Search Ultimate is conveniently listed first on this page. Remember the A-Z list is arranged alphabetically, so it will always be near the top of the list.

screenshot of the A-Z Databases link on the Databases page of the library's website.

Using the Database

The great thing about getting to know Academic Search Ultimate (ASU) is that you will be able to transfer these skills to other databases. ASU is published by EBSCO, and all other EBSCO databases look exactly the same, but they search different content (e.g. CINAHL Complete searches medical information).

There are hundreds of databases published by EBSCO, so it is important to know which one you are using. The first screen seen will be the advanced search screen with the three search bars connected by drop down Boolean operators selectors that default to AND, the most important of the Boolean operators.

The advanced search screen of Academic Search Ultimate.

You can enter all your search terms in the first bar, separated by the Boolean operators, or you can use the advanced search bar options which have the Boolean operators built in. The three search bars are nice to use especially if your search gets long and complicated, because it can help you see your whole search statement at once.

After you have entered in your search statement, select "enter" or click the Search button. You will quickly see your search results, where you can browse for articles and learn more about how to improve your search.

Refining Results

You can learn a lot from your search by looking at the number of results. This is an important tactic, because you won't necessarily find everything you need from one search. You will want to look at how many results you got right away to see if your search is focused enough. If you have thousands of results when searching the databases, it means that your search is too broad, and you need to focus (or narrow) your search statement. You could do this by adding another keyword (using the Boolean operator AND), or switching out a keyword. If you get fewer than 10 results, your search statement is probably too narrow or focused. This could be because of your keyword choice, or maybe you are using too many keywords combined with AND, which will always narrow your search. Play around with your search statements and Boolean operators to find a combination that has a better number of results.

screenshot of search results in Academic Search Ultimate highlighting the number of results and the list of subjects in one of the resutls.

The next thing you will want to check is the relevancy of your results. You could the perfect amount of results, but if the sources you are finding aren’t answering your research question, or if they are all popular press publications (i.e. only magazines and newspapers) then your search is still not fully working. Don’t give up, but try try another search with different keywords or a different tactic with your Boolean operators. Searching is trial and error.

screenshot of a search in Academic Search Ultimate showing the use of the multiple search boxes, with the OR searches in parentheses.

screenshot of the Refine Results toolbar, showing some of the helpful filters, such as the source types for Academic Journals, Magazines, and Newspapers.As you are reviewing your results, pay attention to the part that says “Subjects”  for each article. These subjects are potential keywords that you can use to refine your search and make your results more relevant. They are like hashtags in social media, but they are the academic versions of the keywords and can give you ideas to revise your initial search and keywords as well.

If you continue to have trouble finding the information you need, reach out to one of the librarians at the library, either face-to-face or online.

Once you have refined your results using your keywords, you can also use the filters on the left sidebar to make them even more relevant.

You can limit by source type, date, and whether the articles are full text or peer reviewed, etc. These can be helpful for narrowing down a relevant search to the exact type of source and time period you need. Since most professors will require very specific types of sources, knowing how to filter out the types of sources you can’t use simplifies the process a lot.

Note for INFO 1010:

The “Refine Results” filters can be especially useful when trying to limit your results to a specific source type or date range, which will be helpful in your Evaluation Assignment in Module 4.

If your topic is something that needs more than a general database such as Academic Search Ultimate or Google Scholar can give you, it is best to use a subject specific database. These databases focus on specific topics and will have more journals devoted to their topics, giving you more information than you would get from a general database, that has a little bit on every topic.

Finding the Right Databases

screenshot of the Search the Library search box on the library's website where the Find a Database link is located.                     To get to the subject specific databases, you follow the same route by clicking Find a Database, just like you would to get to Academic Search Ultimate, but you have to follow that second link to the View A-Z list of all Sherratt Library databases. The biggest difference is that you will then want use the drop menus at the top to limit to a specific subject from the All Subjects list. This will give you the options of databases that are focused on your subject.

screenshot of the A-Z list of databases link on the Databases page of the library's website.

The example below is the list of Nursing databases, chosen from the list of subjects.

You might notice that Academic Search Ultimate is still one of the options, because it does cover this topic a bit. It will usually give it's best guess as to which databases would be the most helpful, if you do have a specifically nursing topic. However, if you chose the subject of nursing since it was the closes to your general health science question, those best bests might not be the best for you.

There will usually be a subject guide on the left side, where the librarian over the subject has put together tips and tools to help your research within the subject easier. It's a good idea to check those out.

the subject list of nursing databases.

Using the Databases

Using a subject specific database is no different then using a general one. The biggest difference will be how many results you will get within that subject. Most of the SUU databases will be EBSCO, and so will look EXACTLY like Academic Search Ultimate. Others will look different, but will have the same basic features: a search bar, Boolean operators, and limiter options.

The searching and limiter options might be called different things, but once you start using them, it is generally easy to find the equivalent features and to use them in the same way.

A picture showing examples of different nursing databases, including CINAHL, BioOne, and PubMed.