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What databases do I use?

Oct 25, 2017

There’s a movie called the Time Machine (1960) based on the book written by H.G. Wells. It’s one of the few high quality science fiction films made before 2001 a Space Odyssey (1968).  At the end of the movie the hero returns to his time, gets three books, and returns to the future.  Two of his friends see the spaces in his personal library where the books were shelved and speculate which three books he took.  Which three books would you take to try to rebuild the future?


Another 1960s science fiction film is Fahrenheit 451 (1966) based on the novel by Ray Bradbury. This movie is one of the classic early Dystopian Sci-fi films and in this dark vision of the future all books are not just banned, they are burned.  To save and protect books from being lost forever a group of rebels each memorizes a book, word for word so the books cannot be burned.  If you could choose only one book to save, which book would you choose?


I’m asked these types of questions all the time. If you could choose one book, or three books, which books would you choose?  I never can.  I’m a Reference Librarian with over twenty years of library experience.  Ask me one question I’ll ask you ten.  What do you want them for?  What reading level?  Is there a size or weight limit and so forth?

I’m a print guy but I’m also an information professional. I Google things all the time.  So when a staff member asked me to choose one or two library databases for this article, my first question was what information are you looking for?

Google is quick information, but it can be dirty and unreliable. Google is first and foremost a business.  Their top priority is a return on their investment so the results of a Google search are intended to maximize their profits.  With Google the algorithms they use to aggregate search results are proprietary, and not transparent.  The best search results may or may not be results that appear on the first couple of pages of a list of two million hits.  Everybody claims to know this, but even Information professionals get fooled; and studies have shown that most people would rather use quick dirty information than take the time to research accurate high quality information.

So what Library databases do I use the most?  This isn’t a list of databases for the purpose of library marketing.  I asked myself which databases do I regularly turn to for my own personal use.  I came up with four: ReferenceUSA, the Oxford English Dictionary, GVRL (Gale Virtual Reference) and Salem Press.

ReferenceUSA is a database that is like a phone directory/Yellow Pages but vastly better. You can create search parameters and create list of businesses by type.  You can also drill down to find information about those businesses.  I’ve used them to create lists of local radio stations, printing companies, and marketing companies.  I’ve also used them to research itty bitty oil companies that don’t want to be found, and compile lists of hotels and motels for my vacations.


The Oxford English Dictionary: every Librarian loves the OED.  I know it’s one of the great scholarly achievements but it’s also just fun to look at.  The English language steals, adapts, and creates new words constantly.  Slam-dunk, glitch, geek, and debug are all words invented or adapted in my life time.  The OED isn’t just a tool for finding out how to spell a word and what it means; it’s a history of the language.  It gives the date of when a word first appeared in print, what it meant then and what new meanings it has acquired.  If the word acquired a new definition, OED gives a date and quote for that definition so that you can see the history of every word in the English language.  The OED also gives word origins.  It tells whether a word is Latin, Greek, German, or Native American.  Did you know no one knows the origin of the word “dog”?  It’s not Germanic.  The German word for dog is “hound”, or Latin.  The Latin word for dog is “canine”.  It’s an ancient word that survives from some unknown forgotten language!  If you’ve read any of my previous articles on movies or music, I used the OED as part of my research to write them.

GVRL (Gale Virtual Reference Library) is a work in progress.  Like Oxford University Press, Gale is a reference publishing giant.  They have a stellar reputation for producing accurate and timely print reference books but they still have a lot to learn about designing easy to use online databases.  GVRL is kind of clunky to use but they have fantastic material.  I’m always using GVRL to access their Scribner’s American Author and British Author series to do research.  Too many people settle for unverified material from questionable sources when high quality research is just a few clicks away.  I like to verify and double check when I’m writing and I use the Scribner’s Author series all the time.

Salem Press is another highly respected library reference publisher.  The Rogers Public Library has purchased Salem databases containing a complete history of the world.  I can research world history from Sargon of Akkad to the end of the twentieth century.  I am always using Salem Online History for both fun and research.  I’m a history geek and Salem Online History  is a fast read when I need reliable information about world history.  I use Wikipedia but I never trust Wikipedia.  I always try to verify information I get on the Internet and Salem Press is a publisher I trust.  I have found information on Salem Press History that I haven’t been able to find online anywhere else.

Reference Librarians are fact checkers; we have been fact-checkers for centuries.  Anyone can call themselves fact-checkers online but libraries have a history and tradition of building collections of reference materials that are trustworthy.  These are four databases I use and trust.  Try them out and see what’s there.  I hope you’ll find they’re very good and use them as much as I do.

Robert Finch