Facing the large number of electronic catalogues and databases it is often not easy to determine which ones are relevant for one’s own research or how to ensure at least near-completeness when compiling a topic-related bibliography. We hope that this page contributes to making your literature research easier and even more efficient.
Let’s pick some examples from the wide variety of search tools and see what they offer.
- A search engine (e.g. Google, BASE [Bielefeld Academic Search Engine]) searches a corpus of data sources and lists the single items in which the search term you used appears.
- A bibliographic database (e.g. MLA International Bibliography) is a – usually – encompassing record of books and articles related to a certain subject (or to a group of subjects or disciplines).
- A library catalogue (OPAC) shows which books and journals the respective library possesses (or has licensed). You will usually not find articles (or only a small amount).
There are of course many more types of search tools as well as mixtures between them. But still, these few examples point to fundamental functional differences which determine what to expect of a specific tool. Some more features, however, strongly influence the efficiency of your search and the quality of its results. Below you'll find a number of questions which you can use to examine your search tools.
- Is the tool focused on a certain discipline, a certain subject scope or not? E.g. BASE: not subject-specific; Web of Science: focused on natural sciences; Westlaw: focused on law.
- Is the tool focused on a certain publication type? E.g. DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals): only Open Access journals and articles which fulfill certain criteria; IBZ (Internationale Bibliographie der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Zeitschriftenliteratur): only records of journal articles; library catalogues (OPACs): books and journals, but (almost) no articles.
- Which (kinds of) sources are indexed and searched by the tool and do they fit my requirements?
- Are the sources indexed automatically or are they selected intellectually by experts? (Note that intellectual selection and indexing means much higher quality than automatic indexing.) E.g. BASE: searches a large body of intellectually selected scientific repositories; Google: indexes automatically and searches the public part of the internet; Google Scholar: indexes automatically and does not discriminate between scientific books and articles, conference papers, seminar papers, bachelor theses etc.; MLA: its sources are selected and indexed intellectually by experts.
Where to find all this information? Check the Database Information System (DBIS) which offers concise information on the tools listed there. Search tools generally also have an “about”-page of some kind which will most likely answer the questions above.
Of course, you will have very different search queries which require different strategies: You might, for example, just want to access a certain book, you might want to get a quick overview of a topic in your own or in another discipline, or you might want to compile a (near-)complete bibliography for a new research project. But it is safe to generally recommend this approach:
- Examine the relevant tools, if necessary with the help of the questions above.
- Start searching with the tool which meets your current requirements best and offers highest quality.
- Then try others which promise useful or inspiring additions.
Examples are found below.
- As you want to know what has been published on your topic at all, pick a search tool which is not limited to a local collection. Ideally it should focus on your field, be of highest scientific quality (intellectual selection and indexing of scientific sources) and not be limited to a particular publication type. Most likely this will be a subject-specific bibliography, a scientific metasearch engine or the like.
- Depending on your topic and the nature of the tool you started your search with, you could (or should) consult some additional search tools with a different focus and a different corpus of sources. For example, if you study English medieval literature and you started with the IMB (International Medieval Bibliography; focus: medieval studies, particularly literary studies; articles), you should consult the MLA (focus: English literature [as well as other literatures and languages]; articles and monographs) and Regesta Imperii OPAC (focus: medieval studies; articles and monographs, about 3 times as many records as in IMB).
- Again depending on your field and topic it can be a good idea to spend some time browsing a local collection; in case of the subjects addressed by the Library of Anglo-American Culture & History, for example, SUB Göttingen or the JFKI Library. Use the Library AAC metasearch engine or our library catalogues (GUK, Primo). If you are searching in a field of study not covered by Library AAC, check in Webis which German library owns the respective special subject collection. Browse their holdings by searching with title keywords, clicking on subject headings and classes. Read more on why and when it is useful to browse a library collection by topic.
- Check the catalogue of your local library or a union catalogue (Verbundkatalog). If necessary, order the book by interlibrary loan. If this fails, send a purchase request to the Library AAC.
- Check in your local library’s catalogue whether it subscribes to the journal. If not, order the article by interlibrary loan. If it is not available in Germany, send a purchase request to the Library AAC (you can use the fields “Additional information” or “Comments” for the article’s complete bibliographic data or write us an e-mail).
- If you cannot access an article in an electronic journal because your library doesn’t subscribe to it, order it by interlibrary loan. If this doesn’t work, please do ask your local librarian about it – maybe it has to be ordered by interlibrary loan request form (paper). If this doesn’t work either, contact the Library AAC.
- At the moment it is still very difficult for libraries to lend out licensed e-books by interlibrary loan. Try to order a print version, if possible. If there is none and you have difficulties getting access, contact the Library AAC.
There are of course many more types of search queries. We hope though that our tips and examples support you in finding your own best search practice for whatever research question you are exploring.
Please also note our subject-specific search tips:
In some cases, browsing a library collection by topic is a useful or even necessary addition to searching in a subject-specific bibliographic database, for example:
- You are looking for special material like historical sources or maps, audiovisual items, comics, newspapers etc. which are not listed in a bibliographic database or which are unique to this particular collection.
- You are looking for a particular kind of primary literature, for example "works by New Zealand poets" or "works of Irish fiction after the year 2000".
- You are searching for secondary literature in an international bibliographic database which might not index all German or non-English language resources which could be relevant for you.
- You are curious! Library collections are built according to a certain logic and curated by specialists over a long time. Browsing by a library's classification might thus put interesting items into your view which you might not have discovered otherwise. As SUB Göttingen has built a rich collection in the field of anglophone cultures and history since its foundation in 1734, it is worth browsing its shelves, particularly those containing its historical holdings.
See what our collections offer in your field of interest.
- Most systems offer a “simple search” bar on their home page. Do check out expert search (Erweiterte Suche) as it often offers excellent searching and browsing options which will render more relevant results. In addition, drill-down menues can be used (if applicable) to refine your results.
- Mind your search terms! Particularly for topic-related search it is recommendable to use (abbreviated) title keywords in the languages you read. Take care to omit stop words like “and”, “or”, “in” and the like as well as punctuation marks. For abbreviating search terms an asterisk* or a question mark is used in many systems. If not, check the Help pages of the tool for the right character.
- When browsing in a library catalogue, do click on subject headings and classes when you’ve found a relevant title. This will show you more items related to the respective theme.