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Searching for information: a practical guide

Online sources

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.

We've considered some basic principles of searching for information so now let's consider some specific online sources in more detail, particularly in regard to sourcing academic materials.

Sometimes we'll be directed to particular bits of literature; sometimes we'll need to find things for ourselves. When you're starting out in your studies you'll be working with reading lists and the library catalogue, YorSearch, but you'll soon have to find your own examples. YorSearch can help with that too, but you may fare better with something like Google Scholar. And depending what you're searching for, or how precise your search needs to be, you might even need to explore advanced sources like bibliographic databases.

In this section we'll take a look in more detail at these and other online academic sources of information:

Reading Lists

For each module you take, you will find at least one Reading List. This curated list of potential reading matter will contain a variety of academic sources for you to work from.


The Library holds an awful lot of resources, both print and electronic. The Library catalogue, YorSearch, indexes pretty much everything we've got. It's particularly useful for finding things like books and journals.


Internet search engines are a great tool for finding information online. But with so much information out there, how can you make sure you're finding the best stuff?

Google Scholar

Eventually you're going to have to go beyond your reading list in search of academic literature. Google has a dedicated search engine for just searching across academic texts. It's really easy to use, and surprisingly effective for most needs. Find out more about how it works and how to use it.


There's times when Google Scholar just isn't enough. So the Library subscribes to specialist databases that let us search across multiple academic sources in a precise and controlled way. But what exactly do they have in them?

Grey literature

A lot of useful material isn't published in a conventional way. It's things like pamphlets and PDFs. We dig into this 'grey' literature, and look at how to find it.

Data sources

How can you get hold of data and statistics? We look at the sources available.

AI tools

They're the latest 'big thing'. But are they actually helpful for finding useful information? We take a look at the pros and cons of using AI chatbot tools as a reference source.

Credible sources

What makes a reliable source of information, and how might we use such sources in support of an argument? In this session we explore frameworks for evaluating information and determining credibility, and we apply these to a resource with which we are all familiar: Wikipedia. We learn the basics of editing Wikipedia and try to add some much-needed citations by evaluating information from appropriately credible sources.

Searching for information online

In the rest of this section of the guide we'll talk a lot about searching for information online, particularly in terms of academic sources, so we won't get too involved here, but let's consider some basic principles:

Keyword matching

At their simplest, most search boxes essentially work on a principle of 'keyword matching': if you type cat into a search box, the computer will search for the word "cat" and return any documents or pages that contain that word. Unlike with the index of a book, pages mentioning kittens or felines won't get returned.

It gets more complicated if you have two words: cat litter might only search for the phrase "cat litter" or it might search for the words "cat" and "litter" separately, depending on how the search engine has been programmed (its algorithm). So a file or page talking about "a cat having a litter of kittens" may or may not be among the results.

Most internet search engines (for instance Google) tend to have very advanced search algorithms which are very forgiving and which will second-guess what it is you're actually looking for. Sometimes they even seem to work better if you phrase your search as a question! This 'fuzzy' approach to searching can be useful, but it relies on the search engine making the right guesses (which won't always be the case!).

In academia we'll often find ourselves using far less sophisticated search engines which don't have anywhere near the same money and time invested into them as Google and so don't have the ability to guess what we're looking for. This does at least give us a lot more control over the search, and a lot more clarity about how that search is working. But we will have to be more deliberate and more careful about the search terms we use. We might even have to carry out multiple different searches before we find everything we need.

But that's fine. All searching is an iterative process: you try a search, you see what you get, and then you modify your search to see if you can get something closer to what you're after.

Digging through the results

Depending on what you're searching, you may have hundreds of search results to deal with. Again, you'll want to scan and skim the stubs of information you're given to get a rough idea of how relevant they are. Whatever sorting algorithm is being used to display your results, you're probably going to need to go beyond the first page. You might even need to go right through to the end. So being able to make quick judgements about the worth of a result is a skill well worth developing. We'll try to give you a few pointers on that sort of thing as we go through...

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