Step 1: test a simple search
Start with just one or two simple keywords and page through the results.
Primary or secondary sources?
Academic or popular?
Journals, books, datasets?
Regions and Language
What is being searched?
Where are your keywords?
Is the full text of sources being searched?
Is a catalog-style description being searched?
Is a list of categories being searched?
Step 2: what can you manipulate?
Look for filters, sort options, and other ways to organize your results
Look for an “advanced” or “expert” search page
Explore drop-down menus: what are your options? What metadata fields does this database use? What happens when you deploy them?
Does the database employ a specialized, or “controlled,” vocabulary? Can you access it? Look for a thesaurus or index or other way to browse “subjects” in the database.
Step 3: find the "Help" page
Are there search tips available?
What rules does the database follow in interpreting what you put into your search?
Is there an “About” page? How does the database describe itself?
N.B.: sometimes the best description and help is not in the database itself. Try Googling the database name for tips on using it well from librarians and fellow researchers.
Other features to look for:
AKA, Boolean operators, wildcards, truncation, command search
Pro Tip: an Advanced Search often constructs Boolean searches for you (AND, OR, and NOT). Use the Help page to learn more
AKA, save, send, folder, list, My Research
Pro Tip: don’t rely on the database’s citation storage system – it’s better to export to your e-mail or to Zotero, EndNote, etc.
Access to full text
AKA, Read, PDF, HTML, View Online, FindIt@Harvard
Pro Tip: Be persistent! Sometimes it takes several clicks to get to the full text.
(with thanks to Odile Harter for permission to adapt and reuse from the UNABRIDGED: A Master Class in Library Research guide)