Tutorial: What is a library database and why should I use one?
Why use databases?
A database is an online collection of searchable information. Many databases specialize in offering credible, scholarly sources like academic journal articles, while others focus on more popular sources such as newspaper or magazine articles or trade publications. These sources are generally organized by some combination of date, author, title, subject or publication type. Some databases might search within one specific field or discipline, while others might search across different disciplines.
Why use a database when I can just Google search a question?
Google (and other web browsers) is a for-profit company that has developed search algorithms to help make money by selling advertisements to companies, and by selling products to users. Search results will vary from person to person depending on these algorithms, and relevant information may be buried under lots of results. Some resources, especially academic papers or articles, datasets, or other specific information, may be paywalled and not even findable via a regular web browser search. It can be easy to find information with a web search, but it is often much harder to determine what information is reliable and credible.
Unlike a web search, information found on library databases is not free—the University of Minnesota pays for lots and lots of database subscriptions so you can access all the resources you need to do research. Information in a database is often vetted by editors or scholars and is generally more credible than much of the results from a web search. Databases are powerful because they allow you to search through many academic journals at once, and searching the right database can yield far more relevant, helpful results than Google can.
Choosing the right database
There are lots of different databases to choose from—the UMN libraries subscribes to hundreds! At times, it can feel daunting. But the most important step when it comes to choosing the right one, is knowing what is in it. These questions will help you assess what is in a database before you use it.
What subject area(s) does it cover?
Making sure you are using a database that covers the subject you are looking for is crucial, because this effects the types of sources your search generates. For example, searching "depression" in an economics database like Business Source Premier will turn up very different results than a search in a psychology focused database like PsychInfo. Similarly, searching "climate change" will result in very different kinds of analysis depending on if you are looking at a political science database, a physical science database, or an archaeology database.
What types of material does it cover?
While most databases have scholarly articles, there are a range of other materials that can show up in databases, including:
- newspaper or magazine articles
- video coverage or video clips
- book chapters
- images or audio
- conference papers or minutes
- statistical data
What date range does it cover?
Checking the dates covered in a collection are very important, particularly if you are looking for very recent articles or historical articles. Some databases, like JSTOR, tend not to have the most recent content, while others, like U.S. Newsstream, have holding from the present until a set point in the past.
If you still feel stuck, remember the UMN libraries offer research guides by subject, which can point you towards specific databases to consider for your subject.
Getting to the full text of journal articles and books
The University of Minnesota Libraries has access to millions of resources. You can find many of these resources available in full-text online.
This guide gives some tips and tricks to using different resources to get to full-text.
If the Libraries do not own the article or item, you can request it and we will try to get it from another library and deliver it to you online.