What is a database?

If you’ve never written a research paper, finding scholarly articles might seem daunting. Luckily, there are library research databases—electronic collections of information that are typically online—to help speed up the sometimes tedious process of finding good, trustworthy sources. In these databases, you can search key terms and build a list of sources to use in your paper or project. Depending on the database, this could include books, journal articles, newspaper articles, magazine articles, videos, images, audio files, and more! Here, we’ve answered some common questions about databases in order to make your experience more straightforward.

Why use a database instead of just searching in a web browser?

If you Google a search term, the most popular sites come up—and there’s no guarantee of accuracy. You might find a ton of peer-reviewed journal articles, or you might find a slew of posts from unreliable sites like Wikipedia. On the othe rhand, most databases have content from sources they have reviewed and deemed as credible and accurate. So if you type a search term into a database, you can be sure that only good, dependable sources come up, which saves you the trouble of having to figure out whether something is verifiable or not.

Another database perk is that they can search through information that isn’t readily available on the open web. This may come as a shock, but the information found by Google, Yahoo!, and other search engines represents only a tiny percentage of information on the Internet! This is because of lot of data is secured, meaning you need an account and password to access it. For example, think about your Facebook page. You and all of your friends can access your posts, pictures, and videos, but it is not readily available on the open web. Relatedly, a lot of content from academic journals, newspapers, etc., require a subscription for access. Databases are often the best way to look through this content.

What databases are out there?

There are a ton of databases out there. Many databases revolve around certain subject areas or fields. PsycINFO connects researchers to behavioral and social science articles, LexisNexis is a major provider of legal, government, and business information, and ERIC is a database that contains education-related articles. Some databases, such as JSTOR and Academic Search Premier, cover a wide range of disciplines and subjects.

Your school and public library should have a list of the databases they subscribe to on their site. If you’re unsure how to access them, ask your librarian for help!

How can I cite information from a database?

Believe it or not, a lot of databases have built-in tools that allow you create or export citations in a few styles, including the two most common ones, MLA format and APA format. One tip: Check to make sure you’re using the same  style you’ve used for your other citations. For example, MLA 7 and MLA 8 may be similar, but they aren’t exactly the same and consistency within works cited pages is important. 

Anything else I should know?

Searching on a database is a bit different than searching on the web. When searching on the web, we often use keywords. However, when searching on a database, searching by subject headings, or descriptors, is often a more precise and effective way of searching.

Subject headings are assigned to each article or resource that is found on a database. They are specific labels that describe the main ideas of sources. For example, to find an article about how public librarians help patrons find jobs, a researcher might search for articles that contain the following subject headings: Public Libraries, Career Exploration, and Career Education. Use a database’s “thesaurus” to find the specific subject headings or descriptors assigned to sources. You should see a tab or button to access a database’s thesaurus on the main search screen.