Finding Answers Beyond Web Search

PERSPECTIVE Sure, there is plenty of great content on the open Web, but it's far from "everything." Plus, even if what you're looking for has been crawled and indexed by Google or Yahoo, there is no guarantee that you'll create the proper search to have it appear at the top of the results page. To find what you are really looking for, all you need is a library card.

Most searchers only look at the first page of results, and as large Web databases grow even larger it will become even more of a crap shoot to find what you're looking for by just entering a couple of words. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, for many searchers time is a massive issue. In other words, if they can't find it in a few minutes or even seconds, it might as well not exist. Sad but true.

As many of you know, there are thousands (if not more) specialized databases out there that allow you to access all sorts of material that is entirely inaccessible from a general Web engine (Google, Yahoo, etc.). Again, even if some of it is technically "accessible" it might not appear where most people look. The rub is that many of these databases cost money.

Now, here is some good news. Your local public library might be able to help you access these databases for free. Even more exciting is that in most cases they can be accessed from your home or office (no need to visit the library). They are even available 24x7x365. It is also important to point out that these types of resources are licensed by libraries for your personal use.

So, what do you need to access these databases? What's available?

In most cases, all you need to begin using these tools is a library card from your local library. In many areas, you can obtain library cards from several libraries.

Why would you want more than one card?

It's simple: Every library provides access to different databases. No single library has them all. The most important thing for the searcher to do is see what their local library offers. To do this check your local library's web site or just give them a call.

This is where I want to spend some time talking specifics about what is available. Since every library offers different services it's hard to generalize. However, for the sake of discussion, let's look at a few of the resources that anyone with a San Francisco Public Library card can search.

As you'll see, the San Francisco Public Library offers an amazing set of resources; here are a few favorites. Oh, and before you start saying that these databases are difficult to search I think you'll be happy with how much easier they are to use than just a few years ago. Most of these databases can be extremely powerful retrieval tools if you spend a few minutes exploring and learning.

InfoTrac OneFile

Full Text articles from thousands sources. Also, InfoTrac OneFile and many of the other databases use controlled vocabularies to help make subject searching easy and powerful. The database is updated daily.

EBSCOHost Magazines

Full text and in some cases full image (delivered as a PDF file) from over 2100 sources. This databases is available from many libraries.

New York Times Historical

The searchable full text and full image of every article and ad published in The New York Times back to Vol. 1 No. 1 in 1851. Amazing.

Oxford English Dictionary

The classic multi-volume work searchable and hyperlinked.

NetLibrary E-Books

Unlike other online book services NetLibrary allows you to read the complete book online, print pages, and make annotations.

Safari Tech Books Online

Search and read thousands of full text technology books from publishers like O'Reilly, McGraw-Hill, Sams, and many others.

Associations Unlimited

If you're trying to track down a trade association or just about any type of group, this is the electronic version of a reference classic.

Biography Resource Center + Marquis Who's Who

Full text bios, links to full text articles, and much more.
If you like learning about people this databases is as much fun as it is useful. Very searchable.

Again, those are just a few favorites and don't forget that your local library might offer different databases.

Final Thoughts

First: Do not forget that today the world of the library and the librarian (I am one) exists outside of the four walls of the physical library. Sure, we can help you use Google or Yahoo, but we can offer so much more. In fact, many libraries also offer virtual reference services (free, of course) that allow you to interact with a librarian online.

Second: Sure searching is simple but like I said before, spending a few minutes learning the finer points, can turn these databases into very, very powerful tools.

Third: Need help? Ask your librarian. They can offer you lots of training and plenty of advice about how to get the most out of these databases.

Fourth: Don't forget that having knowledge about a variety of databases can save you time and allow you to get the best results quickly and efficiently.

Gary Price is a librarian and writer based in suburban Washington D.C. He is founder and lead editor of ResourceShelf and Docuticker. Price is also the News Editor at Jupiter Media's Search Engine Watch.

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