What is This Thing You Call a Database?

Students are often confused when they come to the library looking for sources. Their instructors have told them to use the databases, and they don’t know what those are. It can get even more confusing. There are some instructors who know the name of the one database we started out with several years ago, and tell students to use “EBSCO,” which is actually the company name. Sometimes, instructors, especially those who are adjuncts teaching at different colleges or recent graduates, will tell students to use the database they like at another college. Some instructors tell students that they can’t use the internet, so when we turn to the computer to show them articles, students almost faint.

Really, there is nothing terribly confusing or complicated about a database. According to the Bing dictionary, a database is a “systematically arranged collection of computer data, structured so that it can be automatically retrieved or manipulated.”

In a library, those databases are usually going to be collections of films, books, or articles. And when doing research, students are mostly concerned with articles.

Databases usually allow for searching by subject, title, author, or keyword (keyword being the most popular with folks used to Google). Searches can  be limited by

  • full text
  • peer-reviewed journals
  • date
  • journal title

Most colleges also have a federated search, which simply allows users to search several databases at one time.

Databases can be very general in their focus, covering almost all subjects from literature to health. Examples include Academic Search Premier, Academic Onefile, and Wilson Web Omni. Others are much more specific. For example, the Historical New York Times covers that newspaper back to the 19th century.

When confused about what database to use, ask a librarian. We can give you helpful tips. But keep in mind that we’re human, and we each have our favorites. So it’s also a good idea just to look through databases and see how they’re arranged.

Used well, databases will allow you to conduct well-organized, comprehensive research on a variety of subjects.

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