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Information Literacy for Health Sciences Students: Background and Foreground

This library guide grew from the question "what should each UCSF health sciences student know about information finding and organization by the time they graduate?"



When you are new to a topic, we recommend starting with Background information. In the UCSF environment this translates to books and review articles. This material provides context, is often more general, is more likely to be out of date, and provides the information you need to understand foreground information

Foreground information is more specific, more in depth, and tends to be the most current information. When you have the background information you need about your topic, it is time to consult foreground sources. In our environment this primarily means article databases.

Throughout your career you will have both background and foreground questions. More background questions at first; less as you progress in training and experience.

Background sources

Book collections: Each of these is found by searching in the search box on the library home page.

  • AccessMedicine - a very useful set of textbooks.
    • Pay attention to:
      • Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine
      • Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment
      • Diagnosaurus is a differential diagnosis app that useful to medical students in the first year 
  • AccessSurgery
  • PharmacyLibrary

Global Search 

Refers to the single search box on the Library home page. Here you can search for everything to which UCSF Library has access. Regardless of whether it is a book, chapter, journal or article, whether it comes from PubMed or Web of Science! 

The search box understands AND, OR, quotation marks, parentheses, truncation (*). You can save what you find in a reference manager. This can be a great place to start learning about a topic.

The UCSF Library Catalog

  • Library catalog - it is a bit old school but here you can find the large number of electronic books we have access to at UCSF.
  • UCSF Library Catalog links from homepageHow do I do that?
  • Find the catalog at It can be found in two places. You will see Library Catalogs in the middle of the homepage for quick and dumbed down search functionality.‚Äč
  • Under Find Materials tab, find UCSF Library Catalog.
  • You can look things up by Subject or Keyword (most common).
  • You can also look by Title and Author if you are seeking something specific.
  • Notes:
    • Keyword
    • Subject, probably the most complete search. Look for main subject of interest. Once you identify the subject, click on that, set to sort results by material type (see image below).
    • Title, see examples provided in catalog
    • Author, see examples provided in catalog.

Foreground resources: Databases and metasearch engines

A Word about Databases:

They are built for retrieval of information.

They often have a dictionary or glossary of terms. In the library world these are called Controlled vocabularies, The names vary by database: e.g., MeSH in PubMed, Emtree in Embase, Thesaurus in PsycINFO, CINAHL Headings in CINAHL.

Databases: Choose based on topic

Name What is it good for Size
PubMed (contains MEDLINE) Biomedical sciences (US Nat'l Lib Med) 27 M
Embase Biomedical sciences (Elsevier) 34 M
Web of Science Life sciences, Social sciences (Clarivate) 35 M
PsycINFO Psychology (ProQuest) 4.4 M
Sociological Abstracts Sociology (ProQuest) ?? M
CINAHL Nursing and allied health (EBSCO) 5.2 M
ERIC Education (ProQuest) 1.2 M

Each of the databases in the table above can be found by searching in the search box on the library home page; results will be found to the right of the page in the Database area.

There are a wealth of databases to be found in the Databases link in Popular Links on the Library Homepage.


"Meta Search Engines"

Name What is it? Tips/Tricks
Google The current mother of all search engines... Limit by .edu or .gov domains in Advanced Search
GoogleScholar Google results filtered for academic content. Mostly published articles but also papers and presentations, white papers, etc.

Settings. Used Advanced Search.  Simplify PubMed searches. Find at

Tripdatabase An Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) search engine. The free version is very useful. You can get some bells and whistles for $40/year. Try the PICO search. Find at
SUMsearch A somewhat idiosyncratic search engine for EBM. There is no substitute for trying this one...find at