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Navigating Library Research: Unit 4: Databases

About Databases

There is nothing free about the information you find on the Web. Even articles found through open source or free databases may involve a fee to get full text. This is where libraries come in. The Auraria Library subscribes to and provides access to hundreds of databases and therefore, thousands of articles. In this section we will discuss the types of databases, differences between vendors and access issues.

Selecting the right set of databases to search is the next most important decision you will make after your research question. The good news is that you can search many different databases and change direction often. In fact, the more database tangents you go on, the more likely you are to stumble on some really exciting information.

What is a Database?

Simply, it is a collection of information (data) that can be searched. This includes just about everything; phonebooks, library catalogs, semester course schedules, etc.

In the context of the library, a database is a search tool that helps you search for articles or other pieces of information based on criteria that you select. For example, you might choose to search a biology-themed database for articles on malaria published between 1995 and 2001.

Is Google a Database?

Mostly not. It's a search engine that can find some of the content in databases. But Google Books is a searchable database of e-versions of books created by Google in a mass digitization effort of older, mostly out-of-copyright works that are preserved (in paper) in some of the great libraries of the world.

Benefits of Using the Library's Databases

The access to current, relevant information and the search functionality available through research databases in the library far exceed anything on the open internet. As you work through the modules of this course and practice searching, you will be able to explore the research power of these databases.

Free vs. Subscription-Based Databases

Subscription-Based Databases

Most of the research databases you use from the library's web site are subscription based. You have access to the databases and the journals we own because of your affiliation with the campus. This is why you log in with your ID when off campus. This is also why you cannot access certain databases linked at the Health Sciences Center library or at other academic libraries.

If you cannot access a database from off campus, check the status of your account (current student or employee?) and make sure you don't have any overdue books. Call the circulation desk for help getting your account set up (303-556-2639). If the problem persists contact the distance librarian at

Free or Open Access Databases

Databases that are published by the government, state agencies, organizations and educational institutions are often open access. Some of these have both a free version and a subscription based version. A few examples of these are Medline (Pubmed is free), ERIC (government version is free) and WorldCat ( is free on the Web). Each of these three databases have a subscription version that the library provides access to, along with the free version.

Differences Between Versions?

Content is typically the same when a database has both a free version and a subscription version. The biggest difference will be the interface or look of the database. There can be differences in functionality or user services (tools) between versions also, but these tend to be minor.

Try it: do a search in with the following two databases.  How do these search engines differ?  Did you get different results with the same search?

The library may have services such as InterLibrary Loan and links to full text embedded in the subscription databases that cannot be included in free versions.

Some examples of free databases or database search engines: 

To see more go to the Open Access database listing.

Database Vendors

Companies that provide databases are called vendors. They are more or less equivalent to books' and journals' publishers. Normally, you don't have to be concerned about the database vendor. But there are instances where this knowledge comes in very useful:

  • You can usually search multiple databases at once when they are from the same provider. For example, it is possible to search Academic Search Premier Plus, Business Source Premier, and Communication and Mass Media Complete (all from within the Ebsco vendor suite) simultaneously.
  • If you are going to use EndNote or other bibliographic management software and import your references it is essential that you select the correct database vendor during the import process. This provides the software with information about the field codes for the data you wish to have in your library of references.
  • Some vendors may have slightly different search algorithms and database features. When there is a choice, such as ERIC through CSA or Ebsco, you can select the vendor that you prefer. (Usually the main difference will be the interfaces.)

When the library changes database vendors it is always with careful consideration and analysis. We welcome your input.

Specialized Databases

Every database is specialized in terms of subject and content. For example, a database may focus on chemistry and contain scholarly articles, or it may focus on business and contain datasets. Many databases are a little bit broader in terms of coverage: e.g., ScienceDirect covers a variety of natural sciences and medicine. Users often find this helpful because they find information that's coming from a range of connected fields. For example, their primary interest may be caffeine toxicity from a biomedical standpoint, but they may find that useful research is being done by biologists, biochemists, pharmacists, and more. 


Each discipline has at least one core database that provides indexing or content to the primary literature of that area. Other databases will also specialize in the same discipline but may be smaller or feature only certain presses.

Example: PsycInfo is considered the core database for psychology. It is published by the American Psychological Association and covers research from the late 1800's. Other databases that would be important to search when doing research in psychology would be Web of Science, Medline, PsycARTICLES or Psychology - Sage, to name a few.


Content can be bibliographic (contain articles, reports), numerical, media or directory information.

Examples of Databases that Specialize in Numeral Data or Media:


Database name

Content type

Statistical Insight (ProQuest)

Numerical data sets

U.S. Census

Numerical data sets


Images: art, architecture, archeology, and humanities with descriptive information

ICPSR (University of Michigan Institute for Social Research)

Numerical data sets

FedStats (U.S. Federal Agencies with Statistical Programs)

Numerical data sets

Classical Music Library (Alexander Street Press)


Classical Scores Library

Scores and music tracks

Theatre in Video

Live performances of plays


These are just a few examples available at Auraria Library. If you can think of a media type or data set, there is a database that specializes in just that information.

Records and Fields

It is useful to know something about how a database is constructed. You can better design a search if you have a general understanding of its content, size and scope. Some databases have unique fields or codes that can be targeted in your search, providing a precise and meaningful set of results.

Database Records

In general, all databases contain records. A record in a library database will contain information on a journal article. It may or may not link to the full text of that article. A record in a clothing vendor's database may consist of all the information pertaining to a shirt that's for sale. The result set you get from any database search is a list of records, usually a subset of the available information.


Each record is composed of fields. These divide all the record information into sections that can be searched. That library database of journal articles will have records with the following fields: author, title, date, volume, abstract, subject terms, etc. The clothing vendor site will have fields pertaining to features such as size and color.

Why is this Important?

It just may help in your search. Try searching for a music composer in the library catalog. Is the person an author? If you hedge you bets and search the name by keyword you may not find anything. Now try searching by author.

The type of search you do, keyword, subject term, title for full content will determine just what fields the database search looks in. If you select the wrong field you may end up empty-handed even if the information you are looking for is there. Even if you find information, you will get very different set of results depending on how you searched.