Search Engines vs Library Resources
You’re probably very familiar with using Google to search for information in everyday life as well as for school projects. Google, Yahoo, and Bing, among others, are search engines, a software system that searches for information on the World Wide Web using keywords and other algorithms, or patterns or rules for organizing data, to list results.
Google has a complex system that determines what results you get and in what order they appear. Google’s algorithm is designed to analyze how many times your keywords appear, and uses their proprietary Page Rank system, among other factors, to order your results. The most relevant and trustworthy sources are often listed first, but not always. Also remember that Google is determining the quality of the sites.
Google is a business. They make money by selling space for ads, which you see on the search results page and on the websites you visit. Their search results are their product, and their algorithm is the secret sauce that makes their search work so well. That is why Google keeps the details about their algorithm secret. What would happen if a competing search engine could easily get a hold of that information?
Google can’t find everything. A majority of the information produced for academic use is not freely available online. Instead it’s housed behind a paywall and requires a subscription or affiliation with a university to access the information. The library provides subscriptions that get you around these paywalls.
Search engines and other online resources like Wikipedia can be a great starting point for your research to generate ideas about your topic and find public information about it.
However, it’s important to understand the limitations of search engines and what you can and cannot access through them.
Adapted from Maria Accardi & Tessa Withorn’s Canvas module Access & Use.
How to Search Strategically
Before we get started, let's talk strategy.
You wouldn't want to rush into the big game without a plan, or hike into the woods without a compass and map, right?
It's easy to get lost in the amount of information that can be found on the open web or in library databases. You may do a search and find little to no results related to your topic. Does that mean the information you need isn't out there? Not necessarily!
In order to find and use information, you may need to take a step back and think about what you've already identified. Think about your research question, the scope of your investigation, and the keywords you may have begun generating for your topic.
Ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What types of sources do I want to find? Is this the right search engine or database to find that type of information source?
- What keywords am I using? Is there another way to talk about what I'm trying to find? Do the people talking about this topic use different terms or phrases than I'm using?
- This may sound like an easy task, but determining what to type in a search box can be hard! Especially when you are new to a topic, it may take some initial exploration to find the specialized language people use to discuss it.
- What types of labels has the database assigned to similar sources? Could I use those subject terms?
- What other requirements am I looking for and how can I narrow my results? Do sources need to be scholarly or peer-reviewed? Does this information need to be a recent as possible?
You can also modify your results using various search strategies. The default of search engines and most databases is to separate keywords and search for them individually.
The Power of And, Or, and Not
In a library database, you can control your results by connecting keywords with AND, OR, NOT, and by using other search strategies like putting "quotation marks" around phrases to keep them together in the search.
Use AND to narrow your results. Your results must include each term.
Use OR to broaden your results. Your results could include any one of the terms.
Use NOT to exclude terms from your results.
Quotation marks narrow your results by keeping words in a phrase together.
We sometimes try to do research without really thinking about it. But how do we know if our research strategy is the best or most efficient? What if we can't remember what's worked well or what hasn't in the past?
Using a Research Log to Document Your Search
A research log can help you keep track of and think about how you search for sources. A research log can be as informal as quickly jotting down keywords and notes, or it can be more structured like writing annotations or summaries of sources and how they might fit into your project. The research log document linked here can help you practice this skill!
Adapted from Maria Accardi & Tessa Withorn's Canvas module Access & Use.
Using the Library Databases and Catalog
Library Databases and the Library Catalog
You may already be familiar with library databases like EBSCO Academic Search Premier or JSTOR, or you may have never used one before. The search screen for a library database may look more complex than Google.
A database is similar to a search engine because you can use keywords to find relevant results. However, while a search engine scans the World Wide Web, a database stores a specific set of information or sources that can be either freely available or subscription-based.
Library databases also work a bit differently than search engines. Keywords can help, but the keywords you use and the limiters you select to narrow your results may take a little more time and practice.
Access to these databases usually costs a subscription fee of thousands of dollars, but you should never pay for articles while at Arcadia. Part of your tuition goes to the library and a subscription to these databases for all Arcadia University students, faculty, and staff. You can check out a comprehensive list of all the databases on the library website.
These short videos (about 3 minutes) will introduce you to ways to efficiently search the library’s databases and catalog.
Common Features of Library Databases
Landman Library’s Catalog
Landman Library’s catalog allows you to search for books, videos, and other materials. It uses a platform called Koha.
Database text adapted from Maria Accardi & Tessa Withorn’s Canvas module Access & Use. Video courtesy of Jane Bomkamp. CC-BY-SA.
Want to see steps for what to do when you already have article information such as a citation?