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Information Literacy History: Introduction Databases


In the second part of the information literacy course we are introducing databases. We will explain which types of databases are available at the University of Groningen Library and how you can use them to find scholarly literature. We will go into Google Scholar as well.

We will show three types of databases:

  • bibliographic databases
  • full text journal databases
  • full text book databases

Further on you will find examples of the different types of databases and about the way to use them.

Learning outcomes

After studying this chapter you will understand about the different search systems that are available in the University of Groningen Library and be able to use them. You will also be able to select the relevant search systems for your specific research question.

The two meanings of the term 'bibliography'

In English the list of references at the end of a publication is sometimes called 'bibliography'. This reference list shows which publications the author used in his research. In Dutch we call this a 'literatuurlijst'.

In this information literacy course we use the word 'bibliography' for something else. A bibliography or 'bibliographic database' is a database that is used for searching publications. It contains tens of thousands of descriptions of publications and has refined search facilities.

In Kate Turabian's Student's Guide to Writing College Papers the word 'bibliography' is used for reference lists. When she refers to the search tool, she uses the term 'periodical index'. Many bibliographies started as a search tool for articles in scholarly journals.

You won't get confused though, because there is such a large difference in size. A reference list contains a few hundred titles at most, while a bibliographic database can contain millions. When your teacher wants you to compile a bibliography, he/she is referring to the reference list. When you search for literature you use a bibliographic database.

Databases, records and fields

Library databases contain information about publications, and sometimes also the full-text of publications. A database has a record for every publication. This record has separate fields for each element of the description. Common fields are:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Year of publication
  • Place of publication
  • Publisher
  • In case of a journal article: the title of the journal in which it is published
  • In case of an article in an edited volume, the the title of the volume
  • Pagination

All the above elements are used for the identification of the publication.

Bibliographic databases in particular have extra elements which describe the subject of the publication.

  • Abstract
  • Subject terms (subject terms sometimes are divided into categories: terms for topics, for place, for people, for time)
  • Many databases contain information about other characteristics of their content:
  • Publication type (journal article, book, chapter of a book, book review, etc.)
  • Peer reviewed (yes or no)
  • Language of the publication

Bibliographic databases

A bibliographic database is a database with references to literature. Like library catalogues they contain descriptions of publications. Bibliographic databases are designed as a tool to find scholarly literature.

Their content is selected with this purpose in mind. They are usually specialised in a specific field of study. They try to cover the most important journals in their fields. Bibliographic databases publish the lists of journals that are covered on their website. The public can see which scholarly journals are covered by a bibliographic database.

The University of Groningen Library has a license for Historical Abstracts which is the most important bibliographic database for History. The Library also has other bibliographic databases that can be very useful to students of History. They are listed further on in this chapter.

Bibliographies have excellent search facilities and are the best tool for finding publications about a subject with precision.

Advanced searching

When you do a basic search the database searches the complete records. In the ADVANCED search you can limit your search to specific fields. Limiting your search to a specific field gives more precise results.

In the next chapter you will be introduced to Historical Abstracts. This database lets you limit your search by keywords, signifying certain subjects, and by historical period.

You can find the searchable fields in the drop down boxes and the limiters on the advanced search screen.

Controlled vocabulary and precision

What is 'precision' in literature research? When you search for publications about a topic and you find 10 results, and it turns out that all 10 publications are exactly right for the topic you searched for, then you have a precision of 100%. That is extremely high and not realistic. Usually a considerable part of your results is not quite what you want. SmartCat for instance is not scoring high on precision. Bibliographic databases score better.

Bibliographies use controlled vocabulary. This means that they work with a fixed set of subject terms. When descriptions of publications are added to a bibliographic database an indexer (a person who is familiar with the field and with the terminology of the database) reads the publication and tags the description with useful subject terms. The indexer decides which subjects are important enough to be tagged. The indexer uses the standardized terminology (= controlled terminology) of the bibliography.

Controlled terminology has many advantages in searching. When you perform a search with an index term in the subject index you will only retrieve publications where the indexer decided that the subject was important in the publication. Controlled terminology reduces NOISE, it reduces the number of non-relevant hits.

Bibliographic databases use controlled terminology. Full-text journal databases and Google Scholar don't use controlled terminology. When you search these you are searching with keywords; natural language terms that you choose yourself.

Using controlled vocabulary in your search

If you want to use the controlled vocabulary of the database in your search, you first have to know which ones they are. The best way to find them is:

  • Start with a keyword search, using your own words or phrases that describe your topic.
  • Browse the results and look closely at the records of some relevant results
  • Look at the Subject or Descriptor field and there you will see the controlled terminology

Most bibliographic databases have a list of the subject terms they use: a thesaurus. You can browse the thesaurus to find the subject terms.