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How to Use Moffett Library Databases: Top Five Search Tips

This guide will offer tips and tricks on how to search and use the library databases.

Tip #1: Get Familiar With Your Topic

Before beginning your database searching activities, it is recommended that you become familiar with your topic subject. No one expects you to become an expert on the subject instantaneously, but the more information you have before beginning your search, the better off you will be. 

  • Browse the stacks related to your subject area. 

To become more acquainted with your subject, browse through the stacks related to your subject to see what authors and topics are most popular in the subject area. The library catalog can help you find individual items housed in your subjects section by searching for individual items with call numbers. 

Moffett Library stacks are organized using the Library of Congress Classification system. If you are unsure in what section your subject can be found, check this list: 

  • Browse through the books, articles, conference papers, etc. related to your subject to see if any "big names" or "big ideas" pop out.

"Big names"and "big ideas" such as key people, organizations, or theories can point you in the right direction for your initial search. Citations listed in footnotes and bibliographies provide additional sources to research and potentially use in your paper. 

  • Exhaust all possibilities in your search. 

While the phrase "global warming" may seem adequate enough for your database search, that is not always the case. Brainstorming various variations of "global warming" help exhaust all possibilities in your search. In a certain database, a cataloger may have used the subject heading "climate change" instead for articles related to global warming. Remember, databases are not like Google and require more effort to pull satisfactory results. 

Tip #2: Keywords vs. Subject Headings

Keyword searching is often used when searching popular web search engines. You are able to search by common terminology or phrases for adequate results. 

Subject headings are "controlled vocabulary" used to describe an item in a database. You will often be required to look up subject headings before beginning your search. To discover subject headings for your topic:

  • You can look to see if the database already lists subject headings relevant to the database. These lists or thesauri can often be found near the top of home page (as in EBSCO databases), or you can browse the Help screens. 
  • You may also wish to complete a keyword search first and then browse the result list. Look for relevant items and note what is listed in the Subject or Descriptor field. You can then redo your search using these subject headings.

While searching by subject headings can require more effort on your part, it is, however, the most precise method for searching databases. 

See the table below for key points about each type of search: 

Keywords vs. Subjects
  • natural language- words you typically use when using web search engines
  •  "controlled vocabulary" words used to describe the content of an item in a database
  • more flexibility in search
  • less flexibility 
  • may yield too many or too few results
  • may be required to use sub-headings to narrow down search results
  • may yield many irrelevant results
  • results usually relevant to the topic

Tip #3: Use Limiters

A majority of databases allow you to narrow your search by employing limiters.Limiters are useful for limiting your searches to a specific publication type, such as journals only, dates of publication, and language. The most used limiters are full-text only and peer-reviewed journals. To avoid pulling citation only records, make sure to check full-text, so you can have instant access to the resource. Some databases include scholarly and non-scholarly content. By checking the peer-reviewed box, you are narrowing your search to only scholarly journals. 

Tip #4: Searching with Boolean, Phrases, and Truncation

Boolean Operators (AND, OR, NOT or AND NOT) are words used to combine or exclude keywords in a search. These operators help produce productive and focused search results. 

Operator Function Example
AND narrow your search England AND Trains (results must contain both words)
OR broaden your search Lamb OR Sheep (results must contain either word)
NOT limit your search Rat NOT Mouse (results must contain Rat but will not contain Mouse)

When searching for phrases in a database, make sure to enclose the phrase with quotation marks. This will ensure that the database knows to search for these words together in that order. 

  • "heart disease"
  • "mental illness"
  • "Tudor dynasty"

Truncation is used to help search for various forms of a word in one search. The asterisk * is used as the truncation symbol in most databases. Wildcards are used to search for various forms of a word in one sentence. The question mark (?)  or exclamation mark (!) are used as the wildcard symbols in most databases.

Function Symbol Example
Truncation Read* retrieves readers, reading, reading, ready, readmission
Wildcard at end of word ? or ! Abuse? retrieves abused, abuses, abuser
Wildcard mid-word ? or ! M!n retrieves man, men

Tip #5: Ask for help!

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!" -William Edward Hickson

If you are unsatisified with your database search results, don't give up! We are here to help you. Library staff is available to provide reference assistance by phone, chat, email, or in-person

                                                 Reference Assistance Hours:

Days Hours
Monday-Thursday 8AM-9PM
Friday 8AM-5PM
Saturday 10AM-6PM
Sunday 2PM-9PM

Need help? Ask a Librarian!


Credit to Northeastern University Library for inspiration for this guide ( 

Credit to University of California Merced Library for inspiration for this guide (

Credit to MIT Libraries for inspiration for this guide (