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HIS 300: Senior Seminar: Databases

"It's Only Metadata"

Some databases, like the library catalog, index all of the articles added to the database using a list of common terms. You will see these, usually under the reference and abstract, listed as subjects or descriptors. If you use this metadata, you may find articles you missed the first time.

JSTOR doesn't add metadata to their records, but rather relies on searching all the words in the articles.

Keep an eye out for key words and phrases associated with your research question. Sometimes finding the right words can almost magically unlock a search.

words words words

photo courtesy of Chris Blakeley

Databases of Interest

In most cases, you can tell from a database whether a book or article is available in our library. Look for the Find It! button. If we don't have it, you should see a link to borrow it from interlibrary-loan. In Google Scholar, look for find it @ Gustavus links; if you don't see it, click on the more option under the reference for more, which will open an interlibrary loan link. Log in using your Gustavus account username and password.

Library Catalogs

Library catalogs can point you to books by author, title, subject, or (in some cases) words used in chapter titles. They also include videos, government documents, and other non-book things. Some things to think about:

  • Catalogs won't tell you what's in the books. Sometimes you need to think of what kind of container might include what you're looking for and broaden your search for the container.
  • Subject headings may use words and phrases you don't - e.g., you may look for Native Americans, but catalogers use the subject heading "Indians of North America." Keep trying different keywords and see what subject headings seem to work.
  • Libraries around the world contribute their catalog records to WorldCat, a huge meta-catalog of catalogs. This is a great place to look once you've got a book title, an author, or a highly-focused topic. If it doesn't show Gustavus owning the book, click on find it @ Gustavus to open an interlibrary loan form. Note: It' best to choose the "books" tab before you search to avoid getting random articles mixed into your search results.

Searching Inside Books

Sometimes you need to preview a book, or see where a particular word or phrase is used. Here are some options.

  • Amazon - many of the books they sell have a "search inside" option. You can't print or copy/paste, but it may help you see how often a word or name appears or get some context.
  • Google Books - includes two kinds of book content: material provided by publishers (which may include introductions, chunks of chapters, and everything except the exact page you need) or books from libraries scanned by Google (which only shows snippets unless the book is old enough to be out of c
  • Hathi Trust - a database put together by a collective of universities that includes books they've scanned and copies of the books in their libraries that Google scanned. Some of the books are old and in the public domain, but others will show only snippets.

Build Your Own Database

Everyone has their own system for hanging onto PDFs, notes, and references. A tool that might help is Zotero, open source software designed by historians for historians. Once you've created an account, you can install the software (I recommend using the standalone version and adding Chrome or Firefox extensions to your browsers of choice) and start building your own database of sources.

You can add references directly from databases, catalogs, Amazon, and other sites. Zotero can also save PDFs to go with the references. To organize your stuff, you can create folders and add notes or tags to references. You can also open a blank form and fill in the blanks yourself when you want to keep track of an offline reference.

When it comes to creating your bibliography, choose a style and drop and drag citations into a document. Then be sure to fix them up, because the computer only creates a rough draft and things are often slightly off.  

If you're really ambitious, you can make it work with your word processor to add references as you write.


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