How research has changed : online databases

Today’s installment of what’s changed in research comes back to a topic I’ve talked about before – the relative wonders of online databases.

(Relative, because they’re not entirely perfect, but they’re still a big improvement in many ways over the previous options.)

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

What’s an online database?

An online database collects articles or materials from various (relevant) sources, and provides a way to find things in different ways (by topic, by author, by publication, by whether it’s a peer-reviewed publication, all sorts of options. often.)

A database can collect material from one source (like an archive of a particular newspaper) or it can collect material from dozens or hundreds of possible sources.

Often, when a database is pulling from many sources, they’ll be about roughly similar topics. For example, the ERIC database gathers educational journals and materials, and JSTOR has a number of different modules, many of which focus on different collections of journals in the humanities.

As you might guess from these descriptions, some of what’s in a database can be rather obscure at first glance.

Getting access to databases

Database access is expensive – in academic libraries, there’s a pretty good chance more than 50-60% of the library’s collection budget goes for database access these days. Worse, the costs go up all the time, sometimes by double digit increases.

That means that libraries make choices every year about what databases they have, and which they continue to have – and how to manage access to them.

The actual details get incredibly messy and complicated, because publishers often bundle access (you can only get access to things A, C, and G you really want, if you also get access to B, D, E, and F, which are sort of useful for your library’s users, but if you had the choice, you probably wouldn’t get that, you’d do something else with your limited funds.)

Also complicating the details are the fact that sometimes groups of libraries arrange access to databases jointly – sometimes a library consortium, sometimes there are state or regional contacts.

Probably obviously, there are lots of different kinds of databases out there, and different kinds of libraries will make different choices. A public library doesn’t really need access to a specialist chemistry database, the academic library maybe doesn’t need one about crafts or genealogy.

What that means for you is that it’s usually best to look at a combo of what you’re doing, and what your local or area libraries offer, as a first step of figuring out access to materials.

How do you find out what databases a library has access to?

Usually there will be lists on their website – it might be under “Electronic resources” or “Online databases” or “A-Z database list” or other phrases like that. Sometimes it’ll be along with other kinds of resources, like ebook access or music downloads.

This should give you links, information about what you need to access it. Sometimes you may need to be on site, often you may need a library barcode or other login method.

Tips later in this series will help you find out about other kinds of articles and resources, which you can usually request through interlibrary loan, even if your library doesn’t directly offer access.

How do you get access to a library?

Most libraries, even very small ones, offer a little access to databases – but they may not be very useful ones for your research.

In some places, you can get access to databases at very large public libraries if you live or work or go to school in the state. In some places, you can get access as an alum (though licensing costs make this a bit less common). In some cases, you can get access if you’re physically in the building, but not otherwise.

It’s worth checking the policies of any library you can reasonably get to – even if that chance is once every few months or every year, you can store up things that need database access and do it then.

Especially in more rural areas, many campuses have more generous access options for people who live in the area. And in the United States, state colleges and universities often have fairly generous guest access.

Figuring out what’s out there

Once you find out what databases you have access to, I advise doing a little exploring. Figure out which databases deal with the topics you’re particularly interested in, and explore. There will often be a list of topics covered, or you can find a list of specific journal titles through links about the resource. (Often this will say something like “Publications”

You can also search for topics outside the library database ecosystem. Google Scholar, Academia.edu, and other sites gather information about articles and resources from various sources, and make it accessible in different ways. In many cases, you won’t be able to get direct access to an article this way, but you can read the title and abstract and other information, and figure out how much you want to track it down.

One of the problems with database searches is that computers are often stupid. While Google and Amazon have a lot of data to do predictive searching, the academic journal databases aren’t usually quite so wide-reaching. If you search on a different term or a different way of wording something, you might not find what you’re hoping for.

These things might help:

  • Take a quick look at Wikipedia, Google Scholar, and other public resources to see what kinds of terms or phrasing show up. Sometimes these tools will help you make better searches.
  • If you find an article that looks promising, check to see if there are subject headings assigned by the database. You can often click on these to find other similar articles.
  • If you find an article you like, check out more about the author. Often they’ve written other things on similar topics.
  • Check out the articles they reference – it’s a great way to find more similar items.

As you go, it’s worth paying attention to terms people use. Many academic fields have preferred ways to phrase things (at least at the moment) so figuring out what those are will help you narrow down your research much more effectively. The same thing goes if you’re researching something where the name has changed: dig a little and figure out alternate possible names, and you’ll likely find more articles.

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