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PALNI Information Literacy Modules

Set of 14 modules available for use as LMS or LibGuide versions

Module 2: Searching for Information Online


man peeping through monocular

(Evgeni Tcherkasski, Unsplash)

When working on a research assignment, you'll use both search engines like Google and library databases to find information. Where you search will depend on your topic and how far along you are in the research process. In this module, we will explore what search engines and library databases are and the differences between them. We'll also talk about Wikipedia, and how it can fit into your search process. Finally, we'll show you what it looks like to search a library database.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this module, you will be able to: 

  • Describe what search engines are, the types of information you can access by using them, and how to access them.
  • Describe what library databases are, the types of information they contain, and how to access them.
  • Describe an appropriate use for Wikipedia in a research project.
  • Describe how you use keywords to search a library database.
  • Search the database Academic Search Complete for a scholarly article.

When you search for information online, you'll likely use a combination of general web searching and library database searching. This section will discuss the difference between the two. 

We'll talk about general web searching, then library databases. Then we'll give an overview of Wikipedia, and talk about how it can be useful in the research process. 


General Web Searching

Google Search Image

What is a search engine?

If you've Googled a someone or something, you've used a search engine. A search engine, such as Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo, uses computer algorithms to search the Internet and show websites that match the words entered by a user. 

Why use a search engine?

  • Broad - Search engines are useful for finding information produced by governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. Examples of reliable information you can find through a search engine include freely available statistics published by a government agency or a freely available article published by a reputable news outlet.
  • Convenient - Search engines are also useful for finding quick background information on a topic.
  • Free - Searching is free, as is much of the information you may find. However, not all information is free and search engines can return websites that charge a fee for accessing articles or reports. 
  • Note: It is more challenging to narrow results effectively, find relevant material, and assess the legitimacy of information in your search results when using a search engine.



Database Search Image

What is a library database?

Library databases are collections of published information from magazines, journals, and newspapers. Library databases can be general (all disciplines) or discipline-specific (e.g. a psychology database). Libraries pay subscription fees so that faculty, staff, and students can access databases. Therefore, when you use a database you may need to log in with your student ID and password.

Why use a database?

  • Reliable – Many articles found in library databases have undergone a peer review process. Databases also provide all the information you need to evaluate a source for credibility (such as author name, publication details, and a summary).
  • Relevant – Library databases allow you to customize your search to get the most relevant results. You can search using keywords, discipline-specific terminology, subject headings, and descriptors. You can also search by author, title, and limit your results using various criteria (date, source type, etc.).
  • Accessible – Databases often provide access to the full-text of an article so you do not need to go to the library to retrieve it in person. Additionally, database access is purchased by libraries for its patrons which allows you to access otherwise pricey information at no charge.


How do I know when I should use a search engine and when I should use a database?

It depends on what type of information you are hoping to find and how you plan to use it. If you want credible, scholarly articles, you will have more success finding relevant sources in a library database free of charge. If you want Census data, it is more efficient to find that through a search engine that guides you to the appropriate government website.


What database does the Library recommend for getting started?

Academic Search Complete is a great general database to find articles on most topics. You can always contact your library to ask for database recommendations. We love to help!



Wikipedia Logo

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia with entries that can be created, added, and edited by anyone.

The benefits of Wikipedia:

  • Good for gathering background information
  • Helps generate search terms
  • Readers can consult the Wikipedia bibliographies to find potential sources

What to look out for with Wikipedia:

  • Because content is user-created and has no mandatory review process, there is no guarantee information is reliable
  • Authors are not required to provide credentials
  • Pages recently edited or pages on controversial issues can be very biased


General Research Tips

Always be sure to read your assignment carefully and be sure to ask your instructor if you are unsure what sources to consult.

And if you are ever in doubt about the reliability and credibility of a resource or need assistance finding a proper resource, do not hesitate to ask a librarian!

Searching a Database

Since databases are products created and sold by different companies, they don't all look the same. Most databases contain a search box, which is where you'll type keywords that you've identified to describe your topic. The database will return results that contain the keywords you've entered. You can also tell the database that you only want to see articles that were published within a certain date range, that come from a certain type of source, or that are available to view as a full-text document.

Let's look at a database and learn a little more about using it. EBSCOhost is a company that produces several popular databases, such as Academic Search Complete(general/multidisciplinary), Business Source Complete (business), and CINAHL (nursing). The following video will demonstrate what a search in an EBSCOhost database - in this case, Academic Search Complete- looks like. Pay attention to the ways you can limit both your initial search and the results you receive. 


(EBSCO Tutorials, 2022)

Sometimes, searching for articles on a topic can be a process of trial and error. Keep track of the keywords you search, so that you don't accidentally repeat yourself and you can retrace your steps later.

Here are some tips if you found too much information, too little information, or the wrong information in your search.

Too Many Articles

  • Try looking at an irrelevant record your search retrieved

Why did the database give this to you? Computers are not mind readers, and as such cannot determine the intent behind an entry. They can only parse what's in the search box. Thus, you might want to examine a record that you know to be useless to see if perhaps you typed in a word that you meant one way, while the computer read it as another. Narrowing your search terms or question can be very useful, as well.

Instead of Japan and economy

Try Japan and economy and (auto or automobile or car)

  • Check where in the record (the information about the article) your search terms matched.

Doing this can help you figure out what terms to use--or not--in your next search. Look under Subject or Title for matches, and try doing an Advanced Search or a Subject Search, if you can.


Not Enough Articles

  • Did you spell your search terms correctly?

Many databases search for words exactly as entered, and cannot auto-correct spelling errors. Check a dictionary if you're not sure of a spelling.

  • Get rid of long phrases

You may be able to Google "What is the meaning of life?", but this is not a good search for a database. Most databases will only give you results if the string you typed can be found in the record--exactly in the order you typed it.  Try combining words and short phases. Type the word "and" between them.

Instead of discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Vietnam

Try discrimination and ethnic Chinese and Vietnam

  • Try using alternative terms

Not every source refers to a concept in the exact same way. Using other terms to describe your topic in a search can expand your options if you're low on sources. Acronyms and contractions can be very helpful here. Wikipedia can be a good place to look for other terms that describe your topic.

  • Try to come up with broader terms for the idea you need.

Sometimes, there just isn't much on the topic you want. When this is the case, it's a good idea to broaden your terms and perhaps use your original topic as part of a larger project, instead of as the focus of it.

Very narrow recombinant DNA and sheep

Narrow cloning and animals

Broader genetic engineering and animals

Very broad genetic and animals


The Wrong Articles

  • Check the coverage of the databases you're using

    If the results you are getting are in no way relevant to your topic question, you may want to see if you're using the right database. Check the library's list of databases and descriptions for something that better matches your topic.  This might be a really good time to talk to a librarian - we know a lot about our library's databases and would be happy to help you.



The content for this module is drawn from the following sources:

EBSCO Tutorials. (2022, March 23). EBSCOHost basic search - tutorial [Video].  YouTube.

Undergraduate Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (n.d.). Compare databases and search engines.

University of Toledo Libraries. (n.d.). Quality teaching & learning: Information literacy in Blackboard. 


This activity will give you the opportunity to explore the Academic Search Complete database.

Go to your library's website and open the Academic Search Complete database.  You can typically find this in an A-Z database link  under a heading like "Research" or "Articles" (If you have trouble finding it, just ask your librarian or instructor). Your goal is to find a scholarly article about the effects of climate change on United States cities.

Submit the following information:

  1. What keywords did you use in your search?
  2. Did you refine your search or results? How?
  3. What article did you find? Please list: author, publication date, article title, journal/publication title, volume and issue numbers, and page numbers.


1. teens and tobacco

2. I checked the "Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals" box after I got my results list. 


author: Campos-Outcalt, D.

publication date: 2019

article title: Teens & tobacco use: USPSTF issues draft recs on prevention, cessation

journal/publication title: Journal of Family Practice

volume (issue) numbers : 68(6)

page numbers: 1–2


See the Google doc here for quiz questions and answers. Please note, this document is stored on the PALNI team drive and is only accessible to those who work in a PALNI school.


Creative Commons License

All of the PALNI Information Literacy Modules are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.