Compare Databases and Search Engines


What is a database?

  • Library databases allow you to efficiently search for published information such as magazine, journal, and newspaper articles. Library databases can be multi-subject (all disciplines) or subject-specific (e.g. a psychology database).

Why use a database?

  • Reliable –Many articles in library databases have gone through peer review, which means that other experts have verified the article’s evidence and arguments. Library databases also include all the information you need to evaluate a source for credibility (such as author name, publication details, and a summary).
  • Relevant – Library databases allow you to customize your search to get the most relevant results. You can search using keywords, subject-specific terminology, subject headings, and descriptors. You can also search by author, title, and limit your results using various criteria (date, source type, etc.).
  • Accessible –Students at the University of Illinois can access databases for free 24/7 through the library website. Databases often provide access to the full text of an article so you do not need to go to the library to retrieve it in person. If you are unable to find the full text of an article, or if you are being asked to pay to get access, you can use the Ask-A-Librarian chat to get help.

What databases does the library recommend for getting started?

  • Academic Search Ultimate – Great general database to find articles on most topics.
  • Find Articles Guide – Need a more focused database? Find a list of the Undergraduate Library’s top-recommended discipline-specific databases here.

Search Engines

What is a search engine?

  • A search engine, such as Google or Yahoo!, uses computer algorithms to search the Internet and identify items that match the characters and keywords entered by a user.

Why use a search engine?

  • Search engines are useful for finding reliable information produced by governments, organizations, groups, and individuals on authoritative webpages. Examples of reliable information you can find through a search engine include freely available statistics on a government website, or information on a topic produced by an organization that specializes in that topic.
  • Note: It is more challenging to narrow results effectively, find relevant material, and assess the legitimacy of information in your search results when using a search engine. Search engines can also lead to paywalls, which means that websites will block access to a resource if users cannot pay.

How do I know when I should use a search engine and when I should use a database?

  • It depends on what type of information you are hoping to find and how you plan to use it. If you want credible, scholarly articles, you will have more success finding relevant sources in a library database free of charge. If you want to find background information on your topic, or information from an authoritative webpage from a government or organization, it is more efficient to use a search engine.

What’s the difference between a database, a search engine, and Wikipedia?


Examples of databases include: Academic Search Ultimate, PsycINFO, etc.

Databases are usually a collection of published journals and magazine articles, dissertations, reviews, and abstracts

The benefits of databases:

  • Purchased by the library
  • Search for information in an organized collection
  • More relevant results
  • Information is stable
  • Content is reviewed and recommended by librarians

What to look out for with databases:

  • Terminology and depth of articles may be difficult to understand
  • Information may be dated. Though, it helps to sort results by date.
  • Can be narrow in topic

Search Engines

Examples of search engines include: Google, Yahoo, etc.

Search engines utilize a computer program to search the internet and identify items that match the characters and keywords entered by a user.

The benefits of search engines:

  • Free to anyone with computer access
  • Useful for finding information on groups and organizations
  • Useful for finding personal web pages

What to look out for with search engines:

  • No review standards with regard to content
  • Information not organized
  • Information not stable–locations and content continually change
  • Difficult to narrow down results
  • Difficult to assess legitimacy of information


Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia with entries that can be created, added, and edited by anyone.

The benefits of Wikipedia:

  • Good for gathering background information
  • Helps generate search terms
  • Readers can consult the Wikipedia bibliographies to find potential sources

What to look out for with Wikipedia:

  • Because content is user-created and has no mandatory review process, there is no guarantee information is reliable
  • Authors are not required to provide credentials
  • Pages recently edited or pages on controversial issues can be very biased

What to Keep in Mind

Always be sure to read your assignment carefully and be sure to ask your instructor if you are unsure what sources to consult.

And if you are ever in doubt about the reliability and credibility of a resource or need assistance finding a proper resource, do not hesitate to ask a librarian!