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Research Tips:
Online with Your Local Library

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:

  • to email an article (or group of marked articles), you'll include your email address and, sometimes, you're also able to add a subject and/or a comment. You may also have a choice of emailing the article in plain text (without text formatting or remaining graphics) or in HTML.
    • Note: if you're using a database available only at the physical library, this is usually the option you'll want to pick, unless you can afford the per-page printing costs most libraries have now instituted.
  • many databases have an option to "print" the article.  This will usually reformat the article without frames and with fewer graphics. (Sometimes the essential article illustrations are also stripped out, unfortunately.)
  • to save the article as a file -- it almost always works to choose the print option, close the print dialog if the option automatically triggers that dialog, and then use Save As on your browser to save the article, with its markup intact (italics, etc.)  Links may or may not work in the saved article, depending on how they were formatted and whether they are for articles that require sign-in first.

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.

  • Example: I took the occasion of exploring to look up Primedia and pulled up 27 references in "company profiles" (I discovered, among other things, that the history group is physically located about 15 miles from where I live) and 465 articles, the latest with a publication date of 9 days ago. I've also found 4-day-old articles. When I entered "About.com" for full text search, I got 992 articles -- many of which were simply news articles which cited About sites in the articles.
  • Search: By company name or ticker symbol, industry code/description, subject in article, full text word search, geographic search, personal name. You can limit the search by date, specific journal, etc.  (At the bottom of the page will appear a history of the searches you did in the current session; very handy for finding your way back to a previous search.)
  • Save: print format or email.

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.

  • Search: many options -- for the Student Reference Center, one option is to search by topic, for instance. When searching, you can limit the search to articles with full text only (handy if you don't want to visit the physical library to search for the other articles that are listed as citations only), by date or to specific journals.
  • Save: individual articles have the choice of email or print/save.  If you mark articles, then visit your mark list, you'll find a print option at the bottom of the list that will print one long list of all the articles -- or you can do a browser Save As to save the collection.

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. 

  • Search: Use the Advanced Search to search the full text or keywords to zero in on your topic. In looking up ADHD, for instance, I found two books. Keyword "abortion" resulted in 15 ebooks.
  • Save: you'll need to cut-and-paste into a document. It looks pretty ugly (I haven't figured out how to easily remove the table format) but it's usable.  You're of course not going to reprint large extracts directly anyway, unless the work is out of copyright.

Biographies: For medium-length and short biographies of famous people, both current and historical, see whether your library has the following:

  • Biography Resource Center by the Gale Group - once I log in here, I have to again select the item Biography Resource Center + The Complete Marquis Who's Who (r).  Here you'll find one or more short to medium length biographies, and access to full text articles in journals, as well. And who knows -- you
    • Search: easiest is to search on the name if you know it, but you can also search on "personal facts" (years of birth, ethnicity, nationality, occupation, gender) or search the text of the database for keywords.
    • Save: email or print/save
  • American National Biography - this resource has a single biography for each person, in a fairly standard format.  The information is usually authoritative, and the links to related biographies should be very helpful. [My library does not have this one, but a friend loaned me a library card number to explore it through another library just to see how it works]  If you don't have access to the full ANB, you can still access the Sample Biographies and print or email any that you might find useful.
    • Search: The Custom Search is very rich in options.  To find all jazz musicians listed, for instance, enter (Jazz Musicians) in the "Realms of Renown" field -- 352 biographies come up!
    • Save: email or print/save.
  • Literature Resource Center by the Gale Group - if the person whose biography you're looking for is a writer, you may find her or him here, along with other articles about the person's writings.
    • Search: many options.
    • Save: email or print/save.

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).

  • Search: simple and advanced search are available. Keyword searches, limiting searches to articles with full text, limiting by date, limiting by database and by journal are also options.
  • Save: email or print/save.

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.

  • Search: Keyword searches, limiting searches to articles with full text, limiting by date, limiting by journal are also options.
  • Save: email or print/save.

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.

  • Search: try quick search, topic browse, or advanced search -- or check the tab for "additional databases" to select specific sections.
  • Save: if you mark ("tag" is the term on this database) the items that you want to save, you can then go to the tagged list (navigation at very top edge) and email or print/save selected or all articles in one operation. You will probably want to delete articles from your tagged list after you've emailed or saved or printed them.

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.

  • Example: If I were working on an article about women fugitive slaves, I could use keywords to find a few dozen articles that were relevant back to the 1850s, before visiting the library's physical collection and using the microfilm reader to get the details.  But I'd know that there were resources available, before undertaking the trip, and once I got there, my time would be spent in a very focused manner.

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.


Jone Johnson
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