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Searching Library Databases: Common Search Features


The tabs, in the table below, lead to information on different search features available in many library databases.


Most Databases have an About page (or something similar) that describes what type of information is included in the database.  The information ranges from a brief (and sometimes promotional) summary to a very detailed list of titles and date ranges.  Examples are shown below. 

Another option, for a very brief description, is to hover your mouse over the name of the database in the Databases A-Z list.


Descriptions for databases provided by EBSCO, such as History Reference Center, can also be found by clicking on Choose Databases and then Detailed View, as shown below.


Most databases include a Search Tips or Help page (or something similar) that gives detailed information and examples of the possible search options.  You may want to take a look at these tips before starting your search. 

Even if you would rather just jump right in with your search, please keep in mind that these "instructions" may be helpful to check if you are not getting the results you expected.  Links to the Search Tips or Help pages for some sample databases are shown below.

In many databases, if you want to find results that contain a specific phrase, you can put the terms together in order within double quotation marks

For example, if you enter "Ellis Island" in the search box, the results list would include only items that contain the terms Ellis and Island next to each other in this order (Ellis Island).  The search results should not include items containing, for example, Chris Ellis living on Long Island. 

Some databases have options, usually from the Advanced Search page, for searching exact phrases without the need to use quotation marks.

For many databases, you can combine search terms using AND, OR, and/or NOT to narrow or broaden your search.

  • Using AND between terms narrows the results list to include only items that contain all of the terms 
    • Martha AND George will limit results to items containing both of these names
  • Using NOT before a term narrows the results list to include only items that do not include that term
    • Martha NOT Washington will limit the results list to items with Martha but without Washington
  • Using OR between terms broadens the results list to include items that contain at least one of the terms
    • Nick OR Nicholas will return results with either of these terms

Some databases, especially those containing a large amount of data, assume that there is an AND between the terms you enter and return only items that include all of the terms.


Often, one of the easiest ways to focus your search is to use the Advanced Search feature of a database. In addition to providing check boxes to limit search results by date range, document type, and other options, there are frequently drop down menus for easily placing AND/OR/NOT between search terms and for selecting specific fields to search (such as title, subject, author, and many more).  Searching within the subject field, for example, can be helpful in narrowing a search because it limits the results to items that are about the term (not just items that contain the term - possibly out of context - in the full text or in the record). 

Some databases, such as American Civil War Letter and Diaries, provide an extensive list of ways to focus your search when using Advanced Search.  A few examples of Advanced Search screens are shown below.

examples of Advanced Search screens


In addition to the option of using limiters (such as specifying a date range, type of publication, etc.) when you enter a search, most databases have the option of using limiters to narrow the list of search results.  The limiters are often shown on the left side of the results page.  Some examples of limiter options are shown below.

examples of limiters in a variety of databases

Many databases offer an option to search for varying endings of a term without the need to enter all of the possibilities. 

For example, if you want to find results that include any of the these terms: child or children or childhood (or additional variations that you may not think of when you enter the search), you can use a truncation symbol after the root of the word.  Truncation symbols vary a bit depending on the database, but an * is most common.  So, in this case, child* would be the search term.

Please check the database's Search Tips or Help page for examples of how these searches are handled in that database.


In many databases, there is the option to enter one or more wildcard characters (often a ? or !) within a search term to broaden the search for variations on a word.  For example, using the search term wom?n would return results that contain either woman or women.

Please check the database's Search Tips or Help page for examples of how these searches are handled in that database. 

Many databases also offer more advanced features such as allowing you to search for words a specified number of words apart from each other.  Often this is done by using an N (for near) or a W (for within) followed by a number to indicate how may words can separate the terms.  There are other options, though.  In JSTOR, for example, you would use the  ~ along with the number of words.

Please check the database's Search Tips or Help page for examples of how these searches are handled in that database.

Some databases also offer the option to search for terms similar to the ones you enter, such as variations on spelling, by adding a ~ to the end of a term.  The first letter stays the same if you use this search in JSTOR, but not if you use this search in a HeinOnline database such as Slavery in America and the World.

Please check the database's Search Tips or Help page for examples of how these searches are handled in that database.


Email Butler University Libraries
Irwin Library: 317-940-9227
Science Library: 317-940-9937
CAT: 317-940-8575

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