by Jone Johnson Lewis
Have you checked lately to see what research tools are available to you at your local library, many of them accessible from the comfort of your home via the Internet? Whatever your topic, you're likely to find something of use in most locales.
Do you need biographies of people in your field? Full text articles from popular or scholarly journals? Business and government statistics? Spanish-language resources? You probably don't need anything more than your library card to access these through the Net.
Libraries have moved quickly over the last few years not only to add significant research tools that are accessible from library terminals, but in many cases, to make them accessible to library patrons with the library card as the identifier.
And, there are usually even more resources available at terminals physically located in the library -- usage is limited to in-library by some contracts. But even if this is true, you may be able to speed up your research at the library itself, and make sure you have the information you need later at home. Just email the articles to yourself, and the full text and formal citation are available to you at home or your office.
The particular databases -- some are described below -- will vary a bit from library to library. For instance, there's a history database available at the library where I spend an hour every Wednesday night while my son's at a nearby class -- but that's in Prince William County, not Fairfax County where I live. And Fairfax County doesn't have that database, so I haven't been able to access it from home. (But I can use it in Prince William County, and email myself the results that I find -- so I can search, skim, send some articles home, and sort out what I need later.)
These tips have been tested using U.S. and Canadian libraries -- if you're located elsewhere, try anyway to see what might be available. I'm sure there are areas in the U.S. and Canada where the libraries don't have much or even any of these databases, but I'm guessing that the majority of Guides have access to some selection of these.
Here's a quick guide to exploring what might be available to you:
Step 1: Have your library card handy. You may also need to know your birthdate or zip code or some other numerical identification that your library uses to double-check the library card's validity.
Step 2: Find your public library website. If you don't already know where it is, use Google. I entered "Fairfax County Public Library" and "Chicago Public Library" and "Minneapolis Public Library" and "Westchester County Public Library" in attempting to find out what different libraries might have available.
Step 3: Once there, look on the home page for mention of "databases." Or something about the Internet. The Minneapolis Library, for instance, has a link to "reference gateways" and another to "online databases" -- click through on "reference gateways" and then there's "online databases" but also other items including "E-Books." Fairfax County calls them "Databases." Westchester says "Online Resources." Toronto was a bit less intuitive: the home page has a link to "Magazines, Newspapers and Other Databases," which opens up a new window -- under "Magazines, Newspapers and Databases" are Subject List and Title List. (Look for e-books as well as databases: some of might be of use to you, too. See below.)
Step 4: Begin exploring the subjects and/or title lists and/or e-books.
Step 5: Search for information - each database has its own search formats, and it's worth exploring some of the different approaches that each one has, to really get the most use out of what's available.
Step 6: Mark information that's useful - most databases have a feature where you can mark (or tag) the articles you think are going to be useful, and they'll stay marked for your online session. In some cases, to print or email results, you'll have to select each one individually and email or print it individually; for some databases, email and print work for the entire collection in one operation (very handy!). A few databases allow you to save your marked lists between sessions by choosing a username and password.
Step 7: Save information -- you usually have either email or print options, or both. Warning: simply doing a browser "save as" often does not work, though it may appear to or it may work sporadically. But too often, what you'll end up saving is actually a login screen, not the article you expected. So in most cases, one of these options will work best:
General caution: remember to respect copyright! Just because a database is accessible doesn't give you the right to reproduce its content. Use the information as a research resource, not as a substitute for your own analysis and writing, unless you know that the text is not covered by copyright.
Here are some examples from the library where I have access:
[Note that I use Windows, and some directions may work a bit differently for Macs.]
Business and Company Resource Center: A group of databases made available by the ubiquitous Galegroup. Tabs which may or may not produce results, depending on the search, include Company Profile, News/Magazines, Histories, Investment Reports, Financials, Rankings, Suits and Claims, Products, Industry Overview, Associations.
General Reference Center [Gold] and Student Reference Center [Gold]: the latter is a high-school-level version of the first. Both contain an incredible array of articles, some of more value than others. Some articles are full text, and others only a citation.
E-books (NetLibrary): You can access many of the books directly through http://search.netlibrary.com/login.asp, though if your local library has a link into this system, you'll probably have access to even more ebooks. I found a great book here called "Reader's Guide to Women's Studies" -- I searched for "women's studies" as the title. It's part of my library's collection, not the general collection.
Biographies: For medium-length and short biographies of famous people, both current and historical, see whether your library has the following:
Health and Wellness Resource Center: articles on traditional and alternative health. Searching simply on "ADHD" for instance turned out 921 articles, one reference article (Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine -- it would take 6 pages to print it, plus another page for the accompanying illustration) and one pamphlet (from the National Institute of Mental Health).
Infotrac: similar in operation to other Galegroup article databases, this one is on more general topics, including business, law, environment, politics, technology, sports and current events.
SIRS: With databases like Researcher (general topics), Government Reporter (US government info) and Renaissance (arts and humanities): a wealth of information, often with full text. SIRS Researcher, for instance, includes current-day news.
Historical Newspapers: Some libraries have historical newspapers online, so that from home you can look to see if there are items of interest. At my library, newspapers that are indexed there (not full text, just titles) go back to the early 19th century and go as late as the 1970s.
Literature: the libraries I looked at included several different literature-related databases. Galegroup databases include the Literature Resource Center and "What Do I Read Next?" - a guide to awards information, plot summaries, etc., with searches by subject, genre, author, title, series, etc. Books in Print is often available. You'll probably find others oriented to students or to a general audience. Also see e-books above.