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What is a database?

A library database is an electronic collection of records containing either full-text documents (text, video, music), citations, or abstracts of articles (or chapters in books)Databases can be interdisciplinary (spanning several disciplines) or subject-specific (focusing on a particular discipline, such as history, psychology, or literature.)

Databases are able to provide access to full-text documents from a variety of traditionally print resources that you would otherwise have to pay for individually or through an individual subscription. For example, if you search a newspaper archive you may have to pay for each article you find. But if you search through a database, the library has already paid, so you have access to the newspaper's archive without having to pay. In the age of Google, many of us have become accustomed to not paying for information, but in order for there to continue to be informative, reliable, resources, we need to pay researchers and journalists. Libraries help support those professions by purchasing databases and providing its users with access to that information. 

Databases vs the Internet

There is a difference between the Internet and Internet accessible databases.

The Internet:
The Internet is a worldwide system of computer networks. When you search the Internet through search engines like Google, you are searching the “free” areas of the Internet. Your results will be a list of web sites. Anyone can put up a web site, so you have to evaluate the web site (use the OCRAAP  test) in order to determine if the information is accurate and reliable.

Library Databases:
Libraries provide access to several databases that are accessible through the Internet. These databases are not free. The library subscribes to these databases for a fee and then provides access to them for our patrons. These databases contain information such as newspaper, magazine, and encyclopedia articles. The materials come from publishers, so they have been checked for accuracy and reliability. Some publishers are no longer providing information in a printed format. The only way to get the information now, which was previously supplied in print, is through an online database. Several of the databases come from print sources that publishers are now also selling in an online format. For example, an article that you read from the Los Angeles Times through a database it will be the same article that was printed in the Los Angeles Times newspaper. The databases do not always have every article from the magazines or newspapers that they cover, and they do not include advertisements. Some of them only provide an abstract, or short paragraph, from the article instead of the full-text. In this case, you would have to go to the print source to get a copy of the full article.

When do I use the Internet and when do I use a database?

Use the Internet when you:

  • Are willing to evaluate the web site's content
  • Want to go to a specific web site
  • Want information on a unique topic
  • Want government information such as tax forms
  • Want other world-wide sites

The Internet does have some excellent information - including some information that is not available anywhere else. You just have to be willing to sort through the information and determine what is reliable. The internet can be used for homework, research, and for fun.

Use databases when you want:

  • Newspaper articles
  • Magazine articles
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • Biographical information
  • Statistical information

You can sometimes get the exact same article from the print source, but it might be easier for you to get it from a database. Some databases are available from home with a library card number (if you have a computer with Internet access), so you don't have to come to the library to get a copy of the article.

-from the Los Angeles Public Library 

Choosing a database

How you do choose a database? 

The library offers a number of databases to choose from. Each database contains different information and different ways to present that information. To determine which database is right for you, you'll want to be sure to know what you're looking for. 

  1. What subject are you searching? If you are research a science topic, you want to be sure to choose a science database. If you are searching a certain place or time in history, you want to be sure you are searching the correct place and time. 
  2. What type of information are you looking for? Are you an expert looking for a professional-level, academic journal article or are you new to the topic and are looking for an overview? Read the descriptions of the library databases. 
  3. What is your final product? Are you creating a poster and need images? Are you writing a paper and need multiple points of view? Or are you presenting an overview to your class? 
  4. Try different databases. Finding the right information takes time. The more you try different databases and explore, the more familiar you'll be and the easier it will be to find information in the future. 

Understanding database search results

Database search results look different for each database. Some databases only include full-text, which means you can read every source you find, while other databases may have a mixture of full-text and citations/abstracts. If you're not sure what you're seeing, look at the tutorial page for your database or find a librarian to help.