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History: Searching databases

A guide to resources for the areas of history at Monash University

What is a database and why are they important?

Databases can be collections of things. In an academic environment we are talking about collections of research. They may be lists of books in a library catalogue or the actual book in electronic form.

They are mainly listings of journal articles which often link to the fulltext of articles. They usually provide the latest research findings in a particular discipline.

It is possible to stumble across some of this material when you do a Google search however you will never be sure if the sources are suitable for academic work.

Databases are discipline based reflecting the subject areas they include, so a student can be more confident of locating relevant references which are peer reviewed and suitable for discussion in an academic environment.

Searching a database by a topic is a more strategic approach, particularly for undergraduate students.

Locating the sources

Once you have found relevant material in a database you will need to find the best way to access it.

If there is not a direct link, the following buttons will help identify whether the resource is available online.

  Check for full text button

If the resource is not available from the Library there will be a link allowing you to request it from another library. (This is only available to staff and postgraduates)

Steps for effective database searching

Getting started searching

Try to be as specific as possible in your initial searches. Put all of your search terms in. This might mean that you get very few results. Browse and read the abstract or first couple of pages of a few of the resulting articles to learn more about the topic and an author's interpretation. If this is the direction you wish to follow, look for related articles. If you want to take a different path, edit the search terms and repeat the process.

Think about your search terms

Sometimes the words used for a modern topic are not the words used at the time your research is set. So you need to think about how you are going to search. An example of this is the term 'gender' which would not be found with its current meaning in most historical texts and commentaries.


In a database like JSTOR it is more difficult to construct a search because the default setting is to search the full-text of articles which is too broad. It is useful to ask yourself what is the central theme of your topic and to search for this term (and alternatives) in the title. Therefore, use Advanced Search, identify key terms and choose 'item title' field so you are searching in the title.


This database is easy to search. It has subject terms that link to more information on similar topics. 

International Medieval Bibliography (IMB)

Go to Advanced Search and enter keywords that describe the topic

Search IMB2

Select an article that looks like it may be useful

Search IMB3

The link goes to the fulltext of the article in a different database - Project Muse