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PHY103 - Library Databases: Really, they ARE databases

Really, they ARE databases


There's a reason we call them "databases"

database (noun) -- a structured set of data held in a computer, especially one that is accessible in various ways. (Oxford US English Dictionary)

Like any computer database, library databases have structured information:

  • a record for each "thing"
  • all records within a database have the same fields

Because of this searching can be more precise, because you can look for a word in a particular field (for instance, a name in the Author field) or more flexible, because you can look for a word across multiple fields.

Library Catalog Record

A formatted record for a book as it appears in the Library's online catalog, SouthernSearch:


The coding for the same record, showing the fields (identified by number codes). Look for the AUTHOR and TITLE

LEADER 00000cam  22003374a 4500 
001    175174368 
003    OCoLC 
008    071016s2009    nyua     b    001 0 eng   
010    2007042919 
019    149204185 
020    9780071423083|b(hardcover : alk. paper) 
020    0071423087|b(hardcover : alk. paper) 
042    pcc 
050 00 R895|b.C454 2009 
082 00 610.1/53|222 
100 1  Cember, Herman 
245 10 Introduction to health physics /|cHerman Cember, Thomas E. Johnson 
250    4th ed 
260    New York :|bMcGraw-Hill Medical,|cc2009 
300    xi, 843 p. :|bill. ;|c24 cm 
504    Includes bibliographical references and index 
505 0  Review of physical principles -- Atomic and nuclear structure -- Radiation sources -- Interaction of radiation with matter -- Radiation dosimetry -- Biological basis forradiation safety -- Radiation safety guides -- Health physics instrumentation -- External radiation safety -- Internal radiation safety -- Criticality -- Evaluation of radiation safety measures -- Nonionizing radiation safety 
650  0 Medical physics 
700 1  Johnson, Thomas E.|q(Thomas Edward),|d1964- 
856 41 |zTable of Contents|3Table of contents only|u 
856 42 |zContributor biographical information|3 Contributor biographical information|u 
856 42 |zPublisher description|3Publisher description|u 
903 00 LTI|aAEX August 2010 

Library Database Record

A formatted record for an article as it appears in the CINAHL database:


The coding for the same record, showing the fields (identified by letter codes). Look for the AUTHOR and TITLE.

TIFuture of physics in medicine and biologyAUJeraj R 
AF- Department of Medical Physics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA. 
SO- Acta Oncologica (ACTA ONCOL), 2009; 48 (2): 178-84 (12 ref) 
PT- journal article 
PT- tables/charts 
PT- website 
LA- English 
MJ- Diffusion of Innovation 
MJ- Disease -- Diagnosis 
MJ- Forecasting 
MJ- Medicine 
MJ- Physics 
MH- Disease -- Therapy 
MH- National Institutes of Health (U.S.) 
MH- World Wide Web 
JS- Biomedical 
JS- Continental Europe 
JS- Editorial Board Reviewed 
JS- Europe 
JS- Expert Peer Reviewed 
JS- Peer Reviewed 
SC- Oncologic Care 
IS- 0284-186X 
EM- 20090410 
RD- 20110513 
DO- 10.1080/02841860802558938 
MD- PMID: 19031162 NLM UID: 8709065 
FT- N 
AN- 2010185984 

Try it!

In the Library Catalog, do a keyword for 'health physics' (without the quotes), or for any other topic of your choice. Scroll through the results.

Some results will be obvious--the search words are in the title of the book (or article, or video, or report, etc.) Some won't be so obvious. Click on a less obvious result and look for your search words in the record--they should be highlighted in yellow, as in the picture above.

Try searching for the same thing in the Title or Subject field using the Advanced Search. Did you get anything? (These are more precise fields, with more rules and fewer options.)

Searching a Database

What does "searching" a database actually do?

When you search online, whether it's a library database or a Web search engine, you aren't searching the actual articles or pages. You're searching the database or index.

Google explains search

Library databases work the same way

Library databases work the same way. Our databases (the library catalog is a database, too) contain information ABOUT articles and books (and other things), such as:

  • Titles (of articles, books, chapters, journals, newspapers, videos, etc.)
  • Authors (and editors, directors, actors, translators, etc.)
  • Descriptions
  • Subject terms
  • and, sometimes, the full text.

When you search the library catalog, you can search, for instance, for a TITLE. 

This looks only in the fields for:

  • The title of the book
  • Any chapter titles included in the record
  • Alternative titles (like the title in the original language if it's translated)

A KEYWORD search, on the other hand, searches any of the "word"-related fields:

  • Titles
  • Authors
  • Subjects
  • Descriptions
  • Notes

(Note: the keyword doesn't search all the words in a record. For instance, it doesn't search for publisher names.)

(And we don't do ads!)

Try it!

Try this with your own topics in Academic Search Premier or in another of our databases.

What's a "Subject"?

Library Subjects

"Subject" terms make library databases special. Subjects are a special list of terms so that there is only one term to describe a concept. Everything in the database about that concept uses that subject term.

Different academic topics may use different lists of subject terms, usually called a "Thesaurus".

  • The Library Catalog uses the Library of Congress Classification System.
  • In the Health Sciences, the database Medline (general, clinical, and research medicine) uses MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) and the database CINAHL (nursing and allied health fields) uses the CINAHL Headings.
  • In Education, a lot of resources use the ERIC Thesaurus (like the ERIC database).
  • And there are many more.

General Terminology

This is the Subject terminology for Heart Attacks in the general database Academic Search Premier. They use the term Myocardial Infarction, the medical term for a heart attack, to be more specific, but the topics are still fairly broad. 

Medical Terminology

A medical professional searching for medical articles needs extra precision, so the terminology is more specific. This is the Subject terminology for heart attacks in CINAHL, the Nursing database.

Try it!

Because CINAHL is a medical database, using medical terminology works better and gives us all the articles about heart attacks, not just the ones that use that phrase.


But now there are so many results, what do we do?

Use the other options in the Advanced search to get more specific. Each option selects different fields and different entries within each field. Here's a search for:

  • "myocardial infarction" as a Subject Heading)
  • articles with full text immediately available
  • research articles
  • at least one author is a nurse
  • from the last 5 years
  • in English
  • from peer-reviewed (high quality) journals

How do you use these terms?

You can look them up in the Subject Headings or Thesaurus in many databases. (In CINAHL they are called CINAHL Headings, and in Medline, MeSH.)

It's possible to construct very detailed searches, but you can also just use the terms as your search words. In an individual record, you can also click on a single subject heading to do a search--then use the options on the left of the search results to get more specific.