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Planning Library Research

Research tools

Library catalogues

Individual libraries have catalogues which enable you to search the library's collection for books and periodicals and often other items such as DVDs or CDs. You can usually search by author, editor, title, subject headings or keywords. If you are a member of the library you can also usually access your library account through the catalogue. An example of this type is the Senate House Library Catalogue.

There are union catalogues which enable you to search for specific items in a range of library catalogues. There are also services which use 'metasearch' technology to search a range of resources such as library catalogues and online databases all at once. [Information on using library catalogues]


Bibliographies are compilations of the works by and about an individual author or a particular subject. They may be annotated and can range from short selective works to large comprehensive ones. Printed ones are a good initial tool in the research process but if an online version exists it may contain details of the latest publications.

Indexes and abstracts

Some indexes and abstracts are general, for example Periodicals Index Online, and others are subject based, for example Historical Abstracts or MLA International Bibliography. They can be used to search journals for

  • articles on a particular subject
  • articles by a specific author
  • articles that cite another article

The electronic versions enable searching through hundreds of journals simultaneously and are very useful, especially at the start of the research process. The coverage varies considerably, some include books, conference papers, technical reports and dissertations, for example PsycInfo. [Information on using electronic resources]

Full-text databases

Full-text databases are similar to indexes and abstracts but also provide the full text of the article, usually in pdf or html format. It is important to note that the full text may not be available for all of the references retrieved. The journal coverage in each database is not comprehensive, for example the database may only cover certain publishers or older titles. JSTOR, Ingenta and Academic Search Premier are all full-text databases. [Information on using electronic resources]

Search Engines

Search engines are a useful way to obtain a lot of information on a subject quickly. Search engines are used to search the world wide web, they operate by using software to automatically collect the words on millions of web pages. These are then fed into a searchable database. When you use a search engine you are searching a database of words from web pages, collected by that search engine in the recent (or not-so-recent) past. To obtain relevant results you need to understand how to search effectively. It is also extremely important that you evaluate the results carefully. Currently Google is one of the most commonly used search engines in the UK. [Information on using search engines]

Academic portals

These are portals or gateways to collections of links to authoritative websites which have been selected, evaluated and classified by specialists. Therefore they are an excellent place to start researching a subject on the web. They are usually freely available. There are different types:

  • General reference gateways, eg Librarian's Index to the Internet
  • Subject based gateways, eg SOSIG, Humbul
  • Official gateways for central or regional government, eg Directgov
[Information on academic portals]
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