How Research Databases Changed My Life!

November 11, 2007

Does anyone else remember the joy of the first moment when you realized what Proquest’s Historical New York Times does? Sitting in a library resource presentation, the librarian clicked in the little search box and in a few seconds was searching the entire full text of the hundred some years of history of the New York Times. Not only is it a fantastic way to kill a weekend, as a historian interested in twentieth century America its a indispensable first stop for almost any research project.

In particular, these sorts of databases provide a amazing platform for jump-starting projects. For a specific example when I first started exploring children’s books about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein I made a brief virtual stop at the OCLC’s Worldcat. From their advanced search pane I was able to search for the keyword “Albert Einstein”, and only English language juvenile literature. I could then sort and search them, (This was one of those moments where Zotero would have been a godsend) but most importantly the OCLC counted them for me. When I did the same search for Marie Curie I found, much to my surprise that there are more children’s books about Curie than Albert Einstein, or for that matter any other scientist. By switching Juvenile to non-Juvenile in my search perimeters it was easy to see that this is exactly the opposite of trends in books about scientists for a adult audience. (Yes I know “Adult Audience” is a clumsy term, it is really too bad that ‘adult biographies’ sounds like something that would be bought at an adult bookstore)

With about half an hour of work I had acquired information about over a thousand books, cataloged the information, and was already brimming with questions all because of the amazing aggregate power of Worldcat. Now this was by no means definitive, and I did end up spending 7 hours paging through the 19 editions of the H. W. Wilson Company’s Children’s Catalog on a upper floor of an obscure library finding out which of these books were recommended to libraries over the last hundred years, but I may not have had the impulse to do so if not for the quick and easy search power of Worldcat.

In short both examples demonstrate the way the research database has transformed how we start projects. I will post a few more links with some other ideas for ways things have changed tomorrow!