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Humanities Research: Sources and Strategies: Databases

Tips for Databases and Journal Articles


A database can collect any kind of content. When doing humanities research, you're likely to use databases that contain the following materials:

  • "Bibliographic" databases. These contain journal articles, books, and other secondary literature.
  • Primary sources. Some databases contain manuscripts, early newspaper articles, images, audio, etc.
  • Reference sources. Some databases collect encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. in a broad discipline area.
  • On our "Databases" page, click the blue "information" button by each database to determine what type of material that database collects.

Databases may offer various levels of information. Some databases give you:

  • Citations only  (author and title of article, journal, subject terms):
  • Citations and abstracts (summary of article, date range coverd in article, keywords, subject terms, in addition to citation):
  • Full text of the article (in addition to citation):
  • Search capability for every word in the full text of the articles (tips for searching these databases: use quotations or NOT to focus your search ("william morris" NOT hunt); use search limits that let you select a subject area or specific journals; limit search to Title or Title and Abstract of article in order to retrieve results in which those terms are the primary subject focus of the articles.




  • These maintain multiple databases, and provide a common interface, features, etc., to make searching efficient.



  • Peer Reviewed. Some databases contain both scholarly and popular literature. Instructors often expect you to use only peer-reviewed (scholarly) journal articles; the "peer review" limit offered by many databases lets you do this. For some historical research projects, however, you may also be using popular literature (for example, women's magazines that reflect how a particular social issue was viewed in the 1950s).
  • Full text. Don't rely on this exclusively; you may miss some important literature, particularly in the humanities!
  • Time period. Available in historical databases (Historical Abstracts, America History and Life, Historical Newspapers, etc.)
  • Publication type. Useful if an instructor requests that you use only journal articles, for example, or to exclude doctoral dissertations.



  • "WFU Full-Text Options" button.
  • Some databases also provide links to full texts available in other databases.



  • Enter each concept in a separate box. Then think of synonyms for each concept, and  add these using OR.
  • Use truncation (the asterisk  * ) to cover different grammatical forms of a term (poet* retrieves poet, poets, poetry, poetess). Most databases provide a "search tips" link that will tell you which symbol to use for truncation.




  • Too many or too few results? Select some titles, and use the subject terms assigned to them to refine your search.
  • Too many results? Add another concept to your search statement, or eliminate search terms that are less relevant or too broad.
  • Too few results? Subtract a concept from your search statement, to broaden your search, or "OR" together additional synonymous terms within a concept bar.



  • MLA International Bibliography. Includes journal articles, books, chapters in edited books (books that contain contributions from multiple authors), dissertations. Can limit by publication type.
  • Historical Abstracts (covers all the world except North America); America History and Life. Can create bibliographies using "Add to folder" icon.
  • Arts databases (RILM, BHA). Useful for interdisciplinary aspects of your topic. Just enter search terms for your main topic ("Vietnam war") to see literature on how artists have responded to social issues, historical events.

Journal Articles: Should I do a Broad or Narrow Search?

As a general rule, the shorter the work, the narrower the focus. So when searching for journal articles, you'll want to start with your most precise search strategy. You can always drop keywords to broaden your search as needed.