The Literature Review: Searching the literature

Use Library Search to identify relevant databases

This video takes you through the steps to using the Library Search to narrow down and identify which Library databases are best suited for your research topic.

Using Google Scholar

Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. It can be a good starting point to gain an understanding of the bredth of research published on your topic.

Many VU library databases can also be searched through Google Scholar. Fulltext journal articles and research papers can be retrieved by clicking on the "Find Fulltext@VU Library" link when it appears to the right of your search results.  This will happen automatically while on-campus but may need to be set up as "Library Links" under Scholar Settings to work from off-site.

Steps for searching the literature

  1. Define your terms – examine your subject area and think about the keywords you will use for your research.  Look for synonyms, alternate spellings and international variations for your subject(s). Your search terms will need to be reasonably consistent across all the tools you use. Be aware databases may use different terms to describe the same concept. It is recommended to use the database thesauri (list of subject tems) to identify keywords.
  2. Conduct a basic web search – look at what is available online, this will help  you refine your key terms and topic ideas.
  3. Find out what's available at VU using the Library Search – try to determine what exactly you are looking for, check to find out which books/book chapters are available (at VU or other libraries).
  4. Database searching – use key terms identified from your catalogue and web searches to devise basic database searches. Try searching a few different databases from the Library's Databases A to Z list to find which works best for your subject area or discipline.

VU Search Kit

The ‘VU Search Planner’ provides guidance in search planning, using database features (wildcards, truncation etc.) to find resources, and then platform-specific advice on saving searches. Download and use the guides. 

Download this 'Planning your Search' document and use it to develop a search as you look for library resources.

Learn how to use enhance your database searching with these search tips using truncation, wildcard, connectors, phrases and proximity database features. 

Discover how to save your search results on the major VU database journal article platforms.

Library Search

Use the Library Search box below to find a broad list of items on your topic


  • Use the refine tools on the left-hand side of the results screen to focus your search
  • Add or remove key terms until you find the information which best meets your needs
  • Try using alternative keywords or concepts to idenitfy related topics


Follow this link to access online videos on accessing the Library Search and Library Databases. 

Library databases

Use library databases to find peer-reviewed, high quality articles and research papers.

If you are not sure which databases are relevant to your subject area, use the Browse by Subject section on the Library's Databases A to Z page or make an appointment with your College Librarian

Once you have decided on which database(s) to use

  • enter key terms to search
  • use advanced search options where possible
  • separate each key term or concept into a new search box (if available)
  • limit and refine your results using the tools available (refinement tools will differ for each database). 

Follow this link to access online videos on accessing the Library Search and Library Databases. 

Primary and secondary sources

Research for your literature review can be categorised as either primary or secondary in nature. The simplest definition of primary sources is either original information (such as survey data) or a first person account of an event (such as an interview transcript). Whereas secondary sources are any publshed or unpublished works that describe, summarise, analyse, evaluate, interpret or review primary source materials. Secondary sources can incorporate primary sources to support their arguments.

Ideally, good research should use a combination of both primary and secondary sources. For example, if a researcher were to investigate the introduction of a law and the impacts it had on a community, he/she might look at the transcripts of the parliamentary debates as well as the parliamentary commentary and news reporting surrounding the laws at the time. 

Examples of primary and secondary sources

Primary sources: Secondary sources:
Diaries Journal articles
Audio recordings Textbooks
Transcripts Dictionaries and encyclopaedias
Original manuscripts Biographies
Government documents Political commentary
Court records Blog posts
Speeches Newspaper articles
Empirical studies Theses
Statistical data Documentaries
Artworks Critical analyses
Film footage  



Can something be a primary and secondary source?

Whether or not a source can be considered both primary and secondary, depends on the context. In some instances, material may act as a secondary source for one research area, and as a primary source for another. For example, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1513, is an important secondary source for any study of the various Renaissance princes in the Medici family; but the same book is also a primary source for the political thought that was characteristic of the sixteenth century because it reflects the attitudes of a person living in the 1500s.

Source: Craver, 1999, as cited in University of South Australia Library. (2021, Oct 6). Can something be a primary and secondary source?. University of South Australia Library.