Why use Databases?

(or how to make Google your last stop for research!)

Where do you go to find information for your school projects and reports? Where do you go to find authoritative, credible and current information?  Where do you go to find information that you can trust and which does not have to be tediously evaluated for authority, credibility and currency? Even better, where can you find information easily, quickly and even gives you the citation already formatted for you using MLA citation format?  The answer is: library databases.

What is a library database?  A library database is an indexed collection of magazine, journal, newspaper articles, abstracts, and other information, which has been checked for accuracy and reliability by publishers and then licensed for distribution in online/electronic format. Many of the sources included in the database come from known print sources that publishers sell to the databases. For example, the New York Times is a known newspaper, the articles from which are indexed and included in a full-text online format in various databases, which we have at St. Luke’s School.

Many students ask, “What is the main difference between using library databases and search engines?  The answer is that databases are not the Internet.  We access databases with Internet browsers but we are not searching the Internet.  The Internet is a collection of computer networks, which share different types of information worldwide.  The World Wide Web is a very small part of the Internet that is made up of sites or documents that allow us to share Internet information.

We access Internet information through URL addresses and or search engines. A database is defined as an organized collection of information.  Database contents can be easily accessed, updated and managed.  Databases can be found in different formats and can be accessed via the Internet using browsers.  Library databases include thousands of magazine articles, newspapers and scholarly journals.

Students ask if they can find information contained in databases if they use Internet search engines?  They cannot.  Database information is protected by copyright.  Libraries pay to have access to this information.  Why should students use library databases instead of Google?  Google searches anything published on the web — of quality, or not. Library databases index edited, published material, often scholarly, and collected for an educational use, and subscribed to by your school because it is judged to be useful to the curriculum. Library databases are more focused on scholarly books and articles, and provide more of them, than the open web.  Anyone can publish anything on the Internet so one must be willing to sort through and evaluate an Internet site’s content.  Databases are more credible because publishers have checked the contents for accuracy and reliability.

Databases provide quick access to information on the Web, such as newspaper, magazine articles, biographies, books reviews, images and more.  The databases provide access to information that is safe, accurate, current, validated, copyright –clear, and organized.  Information in databases can be searched using different age appropriate interfaces and results can be matched to each student’s individual reading ability.  Searching is precise, quick and convenient.

When a student is surfing the World Wide Web using a search engine like Google, the student is searching information from billions of sites, both good and bad. Since anyone can publish on-line there is a large amount of information, which is unsafe, unreliable, inaccurate, outdated and biased.  In addition, annoying popup ads and animated images often cause distractions and frustrations.  The World Wide Web has been described as the “Wild West of information, with no sheriff in town.”

Consider the information beyond Google, or rather before Google. What were the authoritative, credible, and current sources available to us before Google: library databases! What is the difference between library databases and search engines?  What kind of resources does each yield?

Library Databases:

Type of information retrieved: magazine, journal, newspaper articles; books or book chapters, conference proceedings, papers, technical publications.

Organization: Content is organized and indexed by librarians and publishers so that content can be easily accessed, managed and updated.

Review process: information in library databases comes from publishing groups and goes through a review process before it is published in electronic or print materials.  The publisher’s editors have checked this information for accuracy and reliability.

How often is it updated?  Regularly, from daily to quarterly to even annually. The information is stable.

Cost/Access: library databases are not free; libraries purchase them. The library pays a fee for access to the databases.  In our case at Dedham High School, our databases are paid for by the state of Massachusetts for use by the taxpayer.

Uses:  library databases should be the first stop for any academic research assignment whether you are searching for background or biographical information, a basic overview or in-depth research coverage.  Please come to the librarian to find out which database will suit your needs for your assignments.

Search strategies:  Offers options to search by specific subject headings or descriptors.  Also offers the possibility to search by keywords in specific fields such as author and title. Offers options to limit search results.

Article Search Tips: Use subject terms and keywords appropriate to you topic. Search more than one database to locate articles, since there is variation in the subject terms used by each database and also differences in the type and number of journals, magazines and newspapers covered. If the full-text article is not available directly from the database, make sure you write down or print off the citation for the article.  You will need to cite the information: title of the publication, author, title, volume, date, issue and page numbers to check if the article is available from another library.  You will want to give this information to the school librarian for assistance in locating the article via interlibrary loan.


Search Engines:

Types of information retrieved: Some free personal and commercial web pages from around the world.  No search engine includes every web page, there many pages of information which is exists on the web which is not retrieved, some free journal, magazine or newspaper articles, current news, government information, advertisements, pornography, email, chat rooms, newsgroups, and list-serves.

Organization: No body oversees the organization, cataloging and evaluation of sources found on a specific page.

Review Process: Since no one owns or controls the Internet, information found using search engines does not go through a review process.  Anyone can publish any opinion or idea on the Internet, regardless of their authority, education or experience in that subject area.  Web pages found using search engines should be carefully evaluated for their accuracy, and reliability.  Usually, web sites should not be a starting point for academic research.

How often is it updated?  Unknown, may include links to pages that no longer exist, so called, dead links. Content is unstable; websites come and go.

Cost/Accessibility: Most search engines and we pages found through search engines are free.  (They are free to the consumer because of advertising).  Search engines may also retrieve links to fee-based web sites or databases that do not allow access without a username and password.

Uses: Search engines are a good place to find entertainment or leisure related information, some current news coverage, directory information, (such as phone numbers, addresses, or basic consumer information). Use the Internet when you want to access digital collections, government information, commercial sites, look at advertising, find out about organizations, groups, personal web pages and find specific websites which must be evaluated.

Search strategies: Searches by matching the characters and keywords entered by the user.  It can be difficult to narrow down the results.  Often results in too much information, too many ‘hits’ and a grab bag of results.

Article Search Tips: to find reliable articles and to limit results, limit your results to either educational or government sites using the term site: combined with your keyword. For example if you are researching intellectual property, this would be your keyword and you would combine it as follows:  intellectual property and site: edu or site: gov.


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