Indexes and Databases : Researching Your Topic

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Indexes and Databases :

The next step in your research is to find articles in periodicals. Periodicals are materials such as magazines, newsletters and professional journals that are published periodically - for example, monthly, seasonally or annually. Because of their publication schedules, they often contain more up-to-date material than you can find in books and so they are an extremely important source of information for researchers. Usually the most recent issues of periodicals are shelved unbound in libraries, while older issues are bound into individually indexed volumes. Some heavily used periodicals, such as news magazines, are often stored on microfiche instead of or in addition to bound volumes. Today more and more periodicals make at least some part of their contents available either on databases that students can access through their libraries or directly on the Web.

Finding articles in periodicals requires that you consult special guides or indexes to periodical literature. The most general of these and one that is apt to be found in even very small libraries, is the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. If you didn't learn to use this reference work in high school or in an introductory college writing course, you can easily teach yourself how to use it now or you can ask your reference librarian for assistance. However, other more specialized guides and indexes to periodicals are likely to be more useful to you as a college-level researcher. Many of these are available online, whether through CD-ROMs the library has or directly on the Web.

A few of the major indexes of this sort are the following: Applied Science and Technology Index

  • Art Index

  • Biography Index

  • Biological Abstracts

  • Book Review Digest

  • Business Index

  • The Education Index

  • Engineering Index

  • General Science Index

  • Humanities Index

  • Index Medicus

  • MIA International Bibliography

  • PsycINFO

  • Public Affairs Information Service (PAlS)

  • Social Sciences and Humanities Index

  • Web of Science

  • Your library probably gives you access to many more specialized indexes and bibliographies. These can be located by consulting the subject entries in a special catalog for reference works (such as Balay's Guide to Reference Books) or by asking a librarian. Most libraries today have computerized card catalogs that allow you to search from a computer terminal for articles in the library's periodical holdings. Usually, guides to using on-line indexes are provided at terminals in the library. They will tell you what indexes are available to you online and will give you instructions for accessing the available indexes and for conducting various types of searches. Sometimes libraries give short courses to help you learn to use online search tools. If you are taking a class that requires writing a major research paper, consider signing up for such a short course. It could save you lots of time in the long run.

    All of these computer databases and indexes work by subject terms (or descriptors, as librarians call them). So if you were doing research about prenatal care among teenage mothers, the descriptors to punch in for your search would be "prenatal care" and "teenage mothers" (note that you probably need the quotation marks to link the separate words into phrases for the search). If you were particularly interested in the correlation between adequate prenatal care for teenage mothers and the high school attendance record of these mothers, you could add "high school attendance" as a third descriptor. The computer then does a three - way search, narrowing its search to articles that address all three issues. Sometimes you have to be imaginative about your descriptors. For instance, if adding the term "high school attendance" doesn't seem to work, try "high school dropouts" as an alternative.

    The list includes just a few computerized indexes. If none of these meets your needs, ask the librarian for others. More indexes are becoming available all the time.

  • Astronomy : INSPEC

  • Business : ABI/INFORM : InfoTrac

  • Contemporary events : Newsbank

  • Contemporary periodicals : Academic Index : InfoTrac : PAIS : (Public Affairs Information Service)

  • Economics : PAIS

  • Education : ERIC

  • General information : Wilsondisc (covers same material as Readers’ Guide)

  • Humanities : InfoTrac

  • Literature : MLA Bibliography

  • Mathematics : MATHFILE

  • Psychology : Psychlit

  • Public affairs : PAIS

  • Social science : InfoTrac

  • When you find a citation in an index or bibliography for an article that sounds helpful to you, copy down the full citation. This will not only help you locate the article itself but will also save you time later on when you need to compile a bibliography for your paper. The same is true, of course, for citations of materials from other sources as well - newspapers, documents, books, pamphlets, TV and radio broadcasts, documentary films, the Web, interviews and so forth.

    While using bibliographies and indexes is an efficient way to locate periodical articles, you will find that current issues of most periodicals are often not indexed. If up-to-date information is essential to your investigation, check the most recent issues on the periodicals' display shelves or check to see if there's an online version of the journal that may include the current issues. You can also ask a librarian if an online index and full-text retrieval service such as ProQuest is available. Tools such as ProQuest contain a wide variety of fairly current articles that you can read on-screen. Often you can print out an article from ProQuest on a library printer or even email it to yourself at home so you can work on it electronically at your leisure there. At many universities services like ProQuest are available to all faculty, staff and students regardless of where those individuals may be logging in from.

    The procedure for locating newspaper articles is similar to that for finding information in periodicals. The major indexes for newspaper articles on national and international topics include the following:

  • The New York Times Index

  • National Newspaper Index-lists articles from the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal

  • The Newspaper Index - lists articles from the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Washington Post (these four papers also give regional news for their areas)

  • Printed versions of these indexes often do not arrive in libraries until sometime after their publication, so computerized indexes are your best bet if you are researching current news stories. You'll find some of the most useful computerized search tools in News bank which indexes a microfiche collection of stories from over 400 U.S. newspapers.

    Yet another source of national and international news stories is the Web which allows online access to current articles in most major newspapers published in this and other countries. Search engines such as Moreover ( or Excite's News Search ( search/news) can help you find deeper access to news stories than general search engines offer. Of course, you can always search the newspapers themselves online. There’s a great list at Many of them let you read their current issues free. Most let you search their archives free. And some even let you have copies of archived articles free. Others request a small fee (usually only a couple of dollars) for reprints of archived articles.

    GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS : Most large libraries contain a special section for U.S. government publications, a type of source that can be especially useful to you if you are writing a research paper for history, political science, law or social science courses. Some government publications are indexed in the public catalog and are shelved according to the Library of Congress or Dewey decimal numbering system. Other, uncataloged documents are kept in the government documents section of the library, arranged according to Superintendent of Documents numbers. Still others are kept on microform in collections called microform sets. These, too, are filed according to Superintendent of Documents numbers,

    Here is a list of a few of the major indexes you can use to locate government document publications. In many libraries you will find a number of other indexes as well. Ask a librarian for assistance if you have difficulty using them.

  • Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications

  • The Federal Index

  • Index to U.S. Government Periodicals

  • G.I.S. U.S. Serial Set Index

  • Washington Information Directory

  • Searching for government documents online can be done via specialty search engines such as FirstGov ( which provides access to all online federal government resources or through sites like Google's Uncle Sam ( which returns links only to government sources. There's a thorough discussion of searching government documents and many more links starting at the Web site of the National Archives and Records Administration ( govdoc.html).

    To continue the section on Make a Research Outline...,

    1. Moving From Keywords to A Subject Search

    2. Reference Tools

    3. Subject Trees

    4. The Library Catalog

    5. Search Engines

    6. Indexes and Databases

    7. Databases and Archives

    Successful Writing Index

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