Online Library Research

Starting your research? Stuck, baffled or confused as to where to look? Wondering how to log in to a database or evaluate a website?
No matter what the assignment may be, we can offer suggestions to help you start your research. Listed below are the questions we hear most frequently from researchers. Review these before starting out on your own quest for online information sources.

How can I know which database is best suited to my topic?

Williams Library subscribes to more than 80 online databases. Find a subject listing of the databases available to you on the Databases page. This page lists many of the major subject areas. Click on your subject area to see the databases we suggest for your research. You can also browse by the list of databases alphabetically by title.

What are some general databases that cover a broad range of topics?

You might try the General Reference database set; or, for articles, try Academic Search Complete, MasterFILE Premier, CQ Researcher, LexisNexis Academic or ProQuest.

What is the difference between a full text and a citation database?

Typically, a full text database provides the citation, an abstract (article summary), and the full text for many of the articles included in that database. Often you'll have the option of viewing and/or printing the article in HTML format and/or as a PDF. When you're conducting research in a citation or abstract database, the records you see in your search result will not include an option to view the full text of an article. You'll need to make note of the citation information from the records that interest you and attempt to locate the full text of those articles elsewhere. We talk about locating full text articles when all you have is a citation in the following question:

How do I locate the full text of an article when all I have is the citation?

Most of our databases will display a "find it @ NSU" button when the full text of an article isn't found. If the citation you've located isn't in a database, you can search to see if the library owns the journal or has access to a copy online.

Steps: After you've found the citation for an article you need, use the Find Journals by Title tab on the home page to determine if the library owns or has access to it. (To browse the online journals list or locate titles by subject, click here.) Just type the name of the journal in which your article appears in the search box.

Search tip: If you're searching for a journal title that begins with an initial article -for example, The Economist - omit the initial article ("the) from your Find: search. Just type "Economist" in the Find: box. The list of online journals is searched to locate the journal you've requested. If we have the journal in full text in one or more of our online databases, you'll see a list of those databases, with hyperlinks to take you directly to the journal title, appear on the screen. (If the title is part of the library's print collection, this information will also be displayed.)

Click on one of the database links - you'll be able to search for the article title in the database containing the journal. To conduct the search you might enter the first few words of the article title in one of the search boxes and specify that your search is to be conducted as a title search. If the journal is not found in full text within our online collection, you'll receive a message of "No Titles ... ."

NOTE TO DISTANCE STUDENTS: If you find the journal you need in the library's print collection (that is, you find the journal title in the library catalog), you still need to place an interlibrary loan request for the article. When we receive your request we'll locate the article in our print collection, make a photocopy, and mail it to you. If you can't find the full text of an article in a Williams Library online database or print collection, you can place an interlibrary loan request for the article. See the Interlibrary Loan item below for details. You can always contact a librarian for assistance if you aren't sure of your next step.

Where can I find some good background sources for my research?

Encyclopedias and dictionaries are great places to start your research. Williams Library provides online access to reference resources (encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks) through Credo Reference, the Gale Virtual Reference Library, Oxford English Dictionary, and Oxford Reference Online.

What should I look for when I use the Web for research?

The Web can be a great resource for information on a research topic. Bear in mind, however, that the Web is unmediated. There is no peer review process on the Web. This means the online researcher must be particularly vigilant in evaluating information before using it in scholarly research.

Think about these things when youre exploring the Web: Who is the author or producer of the page? What is the authority or expertise of the individual or group that created the site? Is the producer of the page likely to have a bias on the subject, or provide an objective interpretation? Is there a revision date on the page? Is it current? Is contact information on the individual or group creating the page readily available? Are the links functional? Do they take you to sites that have moved? Is the site comprehensive, or does it cover only a small fraction of the information available? Is the site well written, or are there numerous grammatical or spelling errors?

For more information on evaluating online information resources and the books and articles you use in your research, check the Evaluating Information Page.

How do I convert my research topic to a search strategy?

Start thinking of your research question as a grouping of concepts. Write down each main idea in your question as Concept 1, Concept 2, Concept 3, etc. You'll probably have no more than three or four concepts in your research question.

Consider the sample research question: Do people who start smoking as teenagers have a greater risk of developing cancer than those who start smoking later in life? You might break this research question into the following concepts: Concept 1 - smoking Concept 2 - teens Concept 3 - cancer.

Once you've broken down your research question into distinct concepts or ideas, find more than one way to describe each concept using a few words or phrases. Think about using synonyms and broader or narrower terms. For example, consider Concept 1 in our sample research question-smoking. You might use "tobacco" or "cigarette" as alternate ways to describe this concept.

Now that you've made your list of concepts for each element of your research question, it's time to put the concepts together to form your research strategy. We suggest that you use Boolean operators to link your concepts and create a comprehensive search statement. Read on in the question and answer below to learn more about Boolean operators.

What are Boolean operators?

Charles Boole, an 18th century English mathematician and logician, developed Boolean Logic. In online research we use the Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT to combine search terms. Think of Boolean operators as a way to search for more than one thing at a time.

  • AND searches for occurrences of ALL of the search terms in a single record.
  • OR searches for records that contain ANY of the terms.
  • NOT searches for records that contain the first term but not the second term.

Using our sample research question above, we might create the following search strategy: (smoking OR tobacco) AND (teens OR children) AND (cancer OR health problems)

Learn more about Boolean operators at the following site: Library of Congress Online Catalog Help Pages - Boolean Searching

Why would I want to use Boolean operators?

Using Boolean operators will make you a more efficient researcher. By linking multiple concepts with the appropriate Boolean operators, you can refine your searches to get the search results you want in fewer attempts. Most of the online databases provide a online search form on their Advanced Search screens that includes the use of Boolean operators. Start your search on an Advanced Search screen and look for the small drop-down menus that appear next to each of the boxes for your entry of search terms. You'll find the Boolean operators at work there automatically combining your search terms.

How can I limit my search results?

Look for check boxes in the online search form on an Advanced Search screen that will allow you to limit your search. It's as easy as that - just check the right boxes. Most databases will allow you to limit your search in the following ways: By date -scholarly/peer reviewed/referred journals -full text articles -publication type -publication name -document type

Are there any rules for conducting effective research?

Sometimes persistence is the most important element of a research strategy. Keep these steps in mind when you're starting to research:

  1. Analyze your topic and break it down into individual concepts.
  2. Identify different ways to describe each concept in your topic.
  3. Combine your concepts or search terms to broaden or narrow your search using the Boolean operators OR, AND, NOT.
  4. Select the appropriate electronic resource; browse the descriptions provides on the Databases Page for ideas.
  5. Enter the search commands with the appropriate Boolean operators.
  6. Evaluate the search results.
  7. Revise the search in light of your results.
  8.  Check the Online Journals List to try to find the full text of an article if it wasn't available in the database you searched.
  9. Check to see if the journal you need is in our print collection. Go to the library catalog and conduct a search using the journal title.

NOTE TO DISTANCE STUDENTS: If you find the journal you need in the library's print collection (that is, you find the journal title in the library catalog), contact us and we'll walk you through the request process.

10. If you can't find the full text of an article in our online or print collections, make an interlibrary loan request for the article.

How do I access online databases off campus?

Our licensing agreements with database vendors require that we limit access to NSU faculty, students, and staff of Northern State University

When you're on campus using one of our networked computers, we know you're part of NSU's academic community and can provide access to these licensed resources.

When you're off campus, the only way we can know that you're part of the NSU community is to ask you to enter some type of identifying information.

From off campus: Select one of the Article Databases - find one in the subject list, or visit the Databases by Title tab to browse an alphabetical list. Select a title, and you'll be presented with a login screen that prompts you to enter the same username as your NSU email (example: firstname.lastname) and the same password you use to access your NSU email. After logging in, you'll be connected to the database you selected and can start your research. It's quick and easy and allows you to access online resources anytime, anywhere. Test your access.

How do distance students access online resources?

Visit the Distance Student Services Page to learn more.

How do I report online database access problems?

Contact our reference desk at 605-626-3018 or by email. We'll look into the problem and get back to you as soon as we can.

How do I place an interlibrary loan request?

When you've exhausted all possibilities for finding the full text article you need in the Williams Library collections, we can try to obtain the article from another library. You'll need to place an interlibrary loan request using the request form in the library catalog. Find access and login directions HERE.

Where can I find help with preparing citations?

Citation styles are used to format certain pieces of information (for example, author, title, publisher, place and year of publication for a book; author, article title and periodical title, date, volume and page numbers for a periodical) about an information source. Complete and properly formatted citations are used to identify and locate an information source. Typically, a list of citations is included at the end of a scholarly paper as a Reference or Works Cited page.

You'll find that citation styles vary by academic discipline. While APA and MLA citation styles are most commonly used on college campuses, there are other styles your instructors may ask you to use. Check the library's guide to Citing Sources page for citation style examples and formatting tips.

In what other ways can I use the library for help with my research?

  • In person  Stop in to see our reference librarians or reference assistants at the reference desk during the hours the library is open and classes are in session.
  • Telephone Call 605 626-3018 to speak with a reference librarian or reference assistant. (Call the reference desk during the hours the library is open and classes are in session.)
  • Email Email us your question to our reference librarians. You can expect a response within 24 hours when classes are in session (excluding weekends and holidays). Check the Library Hours for a schedule.
  • Chat/instant message​ Staffed most open hours during the fall and spring semesters.