A persistent myth says that you can find "everything" on the web. Not even close! Fortunately, many public libraries offer free access to a wealth of online databases that are often much higher quality than what you can (or can't) find on the web.
For many people doing "research" or finding an answer to a question simply involves going to a web search engine, typing in one or more keywords, and hoping that something relevant is returned. No doubt about it, the web is an incredible resource, but it isn't home to an answer to every question.
Other resources can potentially provide an answer -- often a much better answer than the web offers -- that satisfies your information need. One place that you could potentially find this type of material is your local public library.
For most of you, the library is a familiar place. However, what you might be unaware of is that many public libraries in the United States and Canada offer free access to databases that contain full-text magazine and newspaper articles, biographical profiles, full-text books, and much more. These databases also contain large amounts of material that you would never be able to access using a web engine.
What's even more exciting is that these databases are available remotely. That's right, with a library card you can access these resources from any computer connected to the Internet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In other words, you have total access to the content without having to visit the library building.
It's impossible to list every database available from every public library since resources vary amongst libraries. Simply visit your local library's web site, or give them a call and ask what's available and how to gain access. It's a painless process that can be accomplished in a matter of minutes.
If your library provides these services, you'll very likely find several databases provided by one or more online vendors. You will most likely come across names like InfoTrac, EbscoHost, and ProQuest. Don't let the names confuse you. These and other companies offer databases that contain the full-text or citations from hundreds and thousands of well-known publications going back several years.
Some of these databases also provide full-image reproductions of the material. This means you can access a pdf (Adobe Acrobat) version of the article directly from your desktop. In some cases, these articles are the same ones that you might have to pay for if you went directly to a publication's web site .
Also, don't assume you'll need to learn difficult syntax or interfaces. Most of these databases offer several search options, ranging from a simple search box (similar to a web engine) to natural language (simply ask a question) to more advanced choices.
By the way, it's not only articles that you'll find. For example, my public library provides access to the Biography Reference Center. This database provides the complete Complete Marquis Who's Who which contains biographical information on over 900,000 people.
It's important to note that, in most cases, these databases are licensed by your local library for personal use. Make sure to check about any and all copyright restrictions.
Below are some examples of remotely accessible databases available from the Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York Public Libraries. Though you can see what's available, you won't be able to access them unless you have a library card. However, thousand of other libraries, quite possibly including your own, offer similar services.
Chicago Public Library - Magazines, Newspapers and Databases
Use the drop-down menu to see what patrons of the Chicago public library have available.
Los Angeles Public Library - Remote Access Databases
The New York Public Library - Electronic Resources
Locate Your Local Public Library's Web Site
Libdex is a searchable database with links to over 18,000 libraries.
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Don't let the "high cost" of value-added information services such as LexisNexis, Dialog and Factiva scare you away -- all three offer reasonable pay-as-you-go options appealing even to searchers on a limited budget.
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There are right ways -- and wrong ways -- of using the Internet as a search resource. Newcomers often make the mistake of thinking that "everything" can be found on the net. Wizened information professionals often mistakenly believe that the Net is nothing but an online cyberslum offering nothing of merit. The truth lies somewhere between these two extreme views.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.