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Information Literacy: 08. What are Databases?

Strategies used to incorporate research skills for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Management.

What are Databases Video

What is a library databases?

Learn what sort of information can be found through library databases and when to use them for research.

(CLIP video, length 6 minutes)


What Are Databases? And How Are They Useful?


Databases are essentially organized collections of related info or data.  The collections usually cover specific field of study such as history, biology, music, or art.  Most databases consist of literature published in journals, magazines, or newspapers.  Some databases consist of data, image, or specialized information such as chemical reactions or genome sequences.

Click here to browse through Willamette's databases.

Long before databases existed, researchers had to search through massive print index collections that arranged author publications by year or major topic.  It would take hours or days to do thorough research.  Databases speed up the research process by searching massive amount of information with only a few important words.


You should look in a library database if you are:

  • Looking for articles in a magazine, newspaper or scholarly journal.
  • Doing any sort of scholarly research, or research for an assignment.
  • Looking for information on a specific topic.
  • Looking for something that has been reviewed, either through the peer review process, or by a professional editor.


Anyone can post information and images on the Internet. Some materials on the free web may have been reviewed by an editor, but many things have not been reviewed at all.  Most materials in library databases have either gone through the peer review process or have been reviewed by a professional editor.

The free web contains info on any topic, and it can be difficult to find exactly what you need with the over abundance of information.  Library databases are often tailored toward a specific audience, or they deal with a specific subject. This can make searching a little bit easier.

On the free web, you can find up to the minute information. Since there's no formal review process, people can publish information on the web as it happens. Often, older information is not readily available on the free web.  Library databases may contain both older and current information. Because of the formal review process that materials on library databases undergo, they may not contain the most recent information.


Much of the scholarly information on the general web is not freely accessible.  Libraries pay annual subscriptions to access content through databases. Many library databases include the actual item so you can read the entire text of the article or book, data sets, or images.  The free web and some library databases only include basic citation information which is info about articles, data, or images (such as the authors name, publication date, article or book title).

While the free web typically limits access to information, library database often checks for alternative ways to access an item.  As an added bonus, library databases will usually offer to get an item (through interlibrary loan) if it is not available through immediate electronic access or in print.  And you can do all of this while you are away from campus!


For many people, searching the Internet is the first stop for conducting any research.  While you can find a lot of useful info, not everything is freely available, nor is it reliable.  Plus the Internet can quickly overwhelm you with an over abundance of information. 


- Tailored to specific subjects or audience.

- Research is much easier & it saves time .
- Peer-reviewed or reviewed by prof. editors. - High quality info that is more reliable.
- Paid for by the library via subscriptions. - Access to content free of charge. 
- Accessible both on- and off-campus. - 24/7 access from anywhere.
- Primarily collections of articles & reports. - They usually indicate the literature types.
- Sometimes specialized. - May include newspapers, book chapters, etc.
- Citation based with abstract. - To have a short summary of an article.
- Linked to the library's catalog.

- Quickly check if the library owns something,
or order it if we don't.



Some databases cover a broad area of topics, while others are much more specific.  The database Academic Search Premier, for example, covers all sorts of topics, from literature, to world history, to medical sciences, and other natural sciences. Historical Abstracts is a more specific database that focuses on information in history fields.

Almost all databases are targeted at a specific sort of audience, and this can dictate the type of material that you might expect to find in them. Academic Search Premier, for example, is targeted at college, university and community college students primarily at the undergraduate level.  Historical Abstracts, on the other hand, is targeted at people in history professions or students studying history.