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ITE-152: Digital and Information Literacy Modules

Online Search Strategies

The internet is a worldwide network of computers. The internet, also known as the web or the open web is an information system that links to sources online and allows users to navigate through the web, moving quickly and seamlessly from one source to another via hyperlinks. Sources available on the web can include text, images, video and sound.

One prevailing misconception is that everything is available on the internet or open web. As a matter of fact, only a small fraction of the world of information is available on the internet or open web. Think of the web as an iceberg. Anyone can see and access roughly less than 5% of the information available on the web for free, using popular search engines like Google. Wikipedia articles, for example, are open web resources that are available online to anyone who searches for them. In the illustration below, the area above the line represents the open web, where anyone has easy access to free information.

The other 95% of information available on the web is hidden from view and is known as the deep web. The deep web is where information is not free and is not included in popular search engine results. Library databases, for example, are deep web subscription resources that are available online, but only to authorized users such as students enrolled at Reynolds. Books, journals, magazines, newspapers and videos that are commercially available are usually not available on the open web. Thus, some of the most reliable information in existence must still be obtained from licensed library databases or traditional print sources. In the illustration below, the area underneath the line represents the deep web, where it costs money to gain access to higher-quality, reliable information.

Original graphic created by Kevin Simons from Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale Campus and adapted by Virginia Community College System librarians for the statewide Connect for Success information literacy tutorial.

Comparison Table

The table below compares the various differences between information found in the library databases vs. the open web:

Library Databases

(e.g., Academic Search Complete & MasterFile Premier)

Open Web

(e.g. Google & Bing)

Types of Information Retrieved

  • Scholarly journal articles
  • Popular magazine articles
  • Newspaper articles
  • Reference book articles (e.g., directories, encyclopedias)
  • Books
  • No sponsors or ads

When to Use

  • Best for college level research.
  • When you need to find credible information quickly.
  • Best for personal information needs including shopping and entertainment.
  • When you have time to more carefully evaluate information found on the open web.

Creditability / Review Process

  • Articles and books written by journalists or experts in a professional field.
  • All material in a database is evaluated for accuracy and credibility by subject experts and publishers.
  • Reviewed and updated regularly.
  • Lack of control allows anybody to publish their opinions and ideas on the internet.  
  • Not evaluated (for the most part). Need to more carefully evaluate web sites for bias, accuracy, and completeness.
  • Many sites are not updated regularly and can become outdated.

Cost / Accessibility

  • Most information found through a search engine is free. 
  • Library databases cannot be accessed through search engines or the open web.
  • Many web sites found through internet search engines contain licensed, proprietary information and require you to logon with a user account. You must already be a member or pay for a subscription in order to access the material from these web sites.


  • The organization and various search capabilities of library databases allow users to search for and retrieve focused and relevant results.
  • Less ability to search for and retrieve precise results using search engines like Google. Need to wade through a “grab bag” of results.

Constancy / Permanence / Stability

  • Published content from journals, magazines, newspapers and books does not change.
  • Most material remains in a database for a significant length of time and can be easily retrieved again.
  • Web site content can often change.
  • Web pages and sites may disappear for a number of reasons. May not be able to retrieve the same content at a later time.


  • Many databases include a citation tool that will automatically generate an APA or MLA style reference for the article you select. You may still need to “tweak” this citation but these tools serve as a good starting point for citing your articles in a particular format.
  • Most web sites found on the open web do not provide a citation tool or an already formatted APA or MLA style reference for the web pages on their site. You will need to start your citation from scratch using APA or MLA style manuals or handouts from your instructor or the library. 

Additional Information

Additional Information

Anatomy of a Library Database Record

A database is an organized collection of online records in a standardized format that can be accessed in a variety of ways. Academic Search Complete is one example of a database. 

Each record in a database is composed of important elements of information that describe a specific item. For example, the elements of information for a specific article title in Academic Search Complete would be contained in a single database record.

Each record is composed of a set of fields which contain the individual elements of information. For example, each record in an article database includes fields such as: article title, authors, journal title (Source), subject terms, and abstract.


Example of a Record from the Academic Search Complete Database:

Library Databases - FAQs

While there are newspapers and other services, like Google Scholar, available online for free, the library databases are services to which we pay to have access. Most of the articles contained in the library databases cannot be found through a search engine.

What is a library database?

A library database, such as Academic Search Complete and MasterFILE Premier is an organized collection of electronic information that allows a user to search for a particular topic, article, book or video in a variety of ways (e.g., keyword, subject, author, title). Library databases contain thousands to millions of records or resources. The library purchases subscriptions to these databases (similar to purchasing a subscription to a magazine or newspaper).

What type of resources are indexed in library databases?

  • scholarly journal, popular magazine, and newspaper articles
  • reference materials (e.g., entries from dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.)
  • books, pamphlets, government documents, etc.
  • streaming videos

What types of information do the databases provide?

All databases provide citation information about the items they index. A citation typically consists of: author's name, title of article, title of the book, journal, magazine, newspaper, or video, publisher, date of publication.

  • Many library databases also provide abstracts of the items they index.  An abstract is a brief summary of the article.
  • Many library databases also provide the full text (the entire article or book) for items they index.

How do the library databases differ in what they cover?

Some library databases are general - meaning that they index items from many subject areas or academic disciplines. If you're not sure which database to choose, you may want to start your research with our most comprehensive and general database, Academic Search Complete. Most library databases index items from a specific subject area or academic discipline (e.g., business, health, history, psychology). To browse databases by subject, use the Filter by Subject/Discipline menu option.

How do I access and use the databases?

The library databases can be accessed from the library’s homepage. If you are accessing the databases from off-campus, you will be prompted to login with your - My Reynolds username and password. The databases are accessible 24/7. If you need help in using the databases, chat with a librarian. This chat service is available 24/7. Just click on the Chat Now button located to the left side of any Reynolds Libraries page. You can also schedule a one-on-one research consultation with a librarian or sign up for a free library workshop.

Can't I get the same articles in the library databases by just Googling it?

In most cases, no.  Most of the information retrieved from the open web by using Internet search engines, such as Google, is free.  Library databases contain copyrighted, licensed, proprietary information that is not free.  Reynolds Library pays yearly subscription fees for its databases just like it pays yearly subscription fees for its print journals, magazines, and newspapers.

What's wrong with just Googling it?

There's nothing wrong with using Google or another search engine to find information on the web. Just keep in mind that most of the information retrieved from the open web hasn't been evaluated. It could be inaccurate, biased, or it might not be current. Also, the authors of web sites might not have the same credentials as the authors of articles found in the library databases. You will need to more carefully evaluate information retrieved on the open web. All of the articles found in the library databases have already been evaluated for accuracy and credibility by discipline-specific experts and publishers.

My instructor told our class we are not allowed to use any (or only a few) Internet sources.  Can I still use the library databases?

Yes.  Library databases use the Internet as a delivery system but they are not considered the Internet.  In most cases, your instructor means that they don’t want you using web sites or web pages found on the open web through Internet search engines such as Google.  Most of the published resources found in the library databases are not available on the open web.  Always clarify with your instructors what they actually mean when the class is told no (or few) Internet sources.

Accessing the Reynolds Libraries Databases

  1. If you are already know the name of the database you want to search, go to the library's homepage at
  2. When the library's home page appears, move your mouse over Research near the top of the screen.
  3. When the Research menu appears, click on Databases.
  4. When the next screen appears, click on the letter of the alphabet that the database begins with.



Finding Databases by Subject Area or Discipline:

  1. Go to the library's home page at
  2. When the library's home page appears, move your mouse over Research near the top of the screen.
  3. When the Research menu appears, click on Databases.
  4. When the next screen appears, click on the Filter by Subject/Discipline option.
  5. When the menu appears, select a subject.

General Databases:‚Äč

Start with a comprehensive general database such as Academic Search Complete or MasterFILE Premier.

Course and Subject Guides:

If your instructor or a librarian directed you to a specific course or subject guide from Reynolds Libraries' Research Guides website, try the databases listed in the guide by clicking on the Find Articles tab/page of the guide.

Ask a Librarian:

You also can ask a librarian for recommendations on which databases to search for your particular topic.

Off Campus Access

If you click on any Reynolds Libraries database link (including direct links to specific articles, eBooks and videos) from off-campus, you will be prompted with a Virginia's Community Colleges login screen. Use your My Reynolds username & multifactor authentication (MFA) to access any of the library databases from off-campus. 

  1. From the Virginia's Community Colleges login screen, enter your username then click on the Go button.
  2. When prompted, enter your Authorizing PIN number on your mobile phone.

If you cannot login from off campus, email or call 804.523.5211 - or - 523-5220.

ProQuest Central eBooks Note: If you are accessing a ProQuest Central eBook from ON or OFF campus, you will be prompted with a Virginia's Community Colleges login screen. If you are accessing a ProQuest Central eBook from the library catalog, you will also be prompted to select your institution, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

Search Strategies


Type AND between your keywords to narrow your search. The database or search engine will only retrieve those articles or web pages that contain both words. Using AND will decrease the number or hits or articles or web pages in your result list.

Example: school AND crime

Note: Some databases and search engines (such as Google and Craigslist) allow you to type a plus sign (+) in front of a keyword when doing a basic search. This works the same as AND.

Example: +school +crime


OR     undefined

OR Type OR between your keywords to broaden your search. The database or search engine will retrieve those articles or web pages that contain at least one of these words. Using OR will increase the number of articles or web pages in your result list (especially if not used in combination with AND or NOT). Use OR between keywords that are synonyms or have similar meanings.

Example: baby OR infant


NOT     undefined

Type NOT before a keyword to exclude that keyword from your search. Using NOT will decrease the number of articles or web pages in your result list. The best use of NOT is when you are searching for a keyword that may have multiple meanings.

Example: bat NOT baseball

Combo     undefined

Use parentheses ( ) to keep combination searches in order. In the example below, the database or search engine will retrieve articles or web pages that must contain the word law and at least one of the words in parentheses.

Example: (ecstasy OR mdma) AND law


Truncation, also known as stemming, uses a character such as asterisk (*) or question mark (?) at the end of a word, which allows you to search for a root form of a word and pick up any ending.

Example: typing teen* will find teen, teens, teenage, teenager, teenagers.


  • Be careful not to end the stem or root of a word too early to retrieve too many results. Example: typing cat* will find cat, cats, catalog, catastrophe, catsup, etc.
  • Different databases use different symbols to truncate words. However, most of our popular databases, such as our library catalog (QuickSearch), Academic Search Complete and Access World News (NewsBank) use an asterisk (*) as their truncation symbol. If in doubt, check the "Help" screen for the truncation symbol.
  • Some search engines, such as Yahoo! and Google, automatically use truncation without you having to type a truncation symbol.

Wildcard Symbols

Wildcard symbols can be typed in place of a letter or letters within a keyword if you are not sure of the spelling or if there are different forms of the root word.

Example: wom?n will find both women and woman.

Note: Again, check the Help or Tips links available on most library databases and Internet search engines to verify the wildcard symbol that should be used - usually an asterisk (*) or question mark (?)

Exact Phrase Searching

To look for an exact phrase, use quotation marks (" ") around the keywords.

Example: "attention deficit disorder”

Note: this works in most search engines as well. If you type an exact phrase without quotations when doing a basic search, most search engines will look for each word separately. This means your result list will include web pages that not only contain the exact phrase (ex: attention deficit disorder) but also web pages that contain a word or words from the exact phrase appearing separately (ex: attention may appear in one paragraph or sentence and disorder will appear in another paragraph or sentence).

Additional Information