Skip to Main Content
University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

Data: a Practical Guide

Searching for data

Final prototype for the Data practical guide.

Searching for data

If you're searching for existing datasets, what's the best way to go about it? On this page we'll take a look at some data searching principles. We consider how to frame your search for data, and look at techniques for web searching and working with secondary sources. We also have some ideas about what to do if you can't find what you're after, and there's a reminder to think critically about the data and statistics you find.

Data sources

There are a number of dedicated resources that hold pre-existing datasets. Some of those are databases that the University subscribes to, and some of them are openly available on the internet. We've picked out a selection and organised them by theme:

Questions to frame your search for data

You will probably be looking for data about certain people, activities or commodities.

If you're looking for data on people, you need to think about what 'social unit' you're interested in. You may be interested in individuals, couples, households or families. You may be after particular groups, like companies or political organisations. You may be interested in a nation. Particular demographic groupings may also be important to your search — for example, race, nationality or gender. 

If may be that you're interested in 'things' rather than people: for example, commodities like cars. Or you may be interested in a particular activity, like voting.

Defining exactly what is in scope and what is out of scope before you start searching will save you time later.

  • Are you interested in a particular point in time? 
  • Do you want to look at changes in data over time? 
  • Do you need historical information? 
  • Or do you want the most current information?

Most current statistics may actually be a year or more old as there are time lags whilst the information is collected, processed, and released.

Some sources of data offer huge banks of data that are gathered over years and you can interrogate these to do over-time comparisons. 

Some sources just offer quick snapshots of a particular point in time.

  • Are you interested in a particular nation, state, county or city?

Geography is usually a factor. There is usually a place that is the focus of your enquiry.


In order to find the right source to search for your data you need to consider the following:

  • Who is likely to collect the data on this? What kind of organisation?
  • Who is likely to process the data and publish this either as data or stats?

Who publishes statistical information?

  • Government departments - they collect data to aid them with policy decisions. This can be ministerial and non-ministerial departments.
  • Not-for-profit organisations - there are organisations who collect and publish styatistics to support their own agendas or aims. E.g. the World Health Organisation or the World Monetary Fund.
  • Commercial firms - for example marketing companies.
  • Academics - researchers and institutions gather and publish data as part of research projects. You can often find journal articles about topics that contain statistics as evidence. But you may be able to get access to whole datasets.

You may need to be a detective and do some internet searching to determine who you think the main people are with a vested interest in your topic area. Work out if they publish data on their own websites. 

If you are interested in particular countries it is a good idea to work out the government structure in order to work out who will likely publish stats on particular themes.

Search engine searching

Searching the web can be a minefield. Here are some tips for searching on the web for datasets and statistics:

  • Add in words like data or statistics to your search terms.
  • You can search particular sites or domains using advanced search functionality. For example, the site command in Google. A search for site:gov entered in with your keywords will only search sites with gov in the URL. See individual Help sections on search engines for more information.
  • YorSearch and other Library catalogues tell you about particular titles a Library has in stock, some of which may be statistical in nature. The word statistics will be in the subject terms field, so you can use this word in a subject terms search in the advanced search. 

Secondary sources

You may find useful statistics reported in journal articles. Someone else may have already done research in the area you're interested in. Scholars usually publish their findings in journal articles, including some of the data. You will also find stats in newspapers and magazines. Do be critical of your sources and follow them up though to be sure they are reputable and authoritative sources though.

The Library subscribes to many databases for searching for journal articles and other secondary sources. See your own Library Subject Guide for which databases to try when searching for journal articles.

I can't find this stat! What can I do?

Flexibility and detective work are essential. 

  • What you are looking for might just not exist: it may never have been collected or may not be published for people to see. This is true of some countries where the data is just not made available. It may be that if it is very current information it is not available yet, or if it is older it may no longer be available to view. Can you refine your topic of investigation, changing either the geographical area, the timeframe, or the other variables in some way?
  • Have you used the specialist tools and drawn a blank? Can you identify other organisations who may collect that data and explore their websites? Can you explore journal articles and other secondary sources instead?
  • Are you using the tool you're using effectively? Information databases and web search engines have help sections and tutorials with search tips.

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics"

Pinocchio marionettes for sale

Statistics can seem persuasive, but beware. They can often be used to make a weak argument seem stronger. Think critically about statistics that are presented to you, and decide whether you think they are strong enough as evidence to prove an argument. Think about what that stat really tells you and what it leaves out.

For more on how to read statistics with a critical eye, see the book:
"Damned lies and statistics: untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists", by Joel Best.

Online data sources

In this slide deck about gathering data, we take a look at places online where we might find some.

Forthcoming training sessions

Forthcoming sessions on :

Taught students
Show details & booking for these sessions

There's more training events at: