The Digital Library: Online Databases and Reference Software

Think of a university library. Chances are you’re thinking of a large building filled with books, right? You’re not wrong, but you’re not entirely right either. In the last ten years, university library systems have changed dramatically. These days, a good portion of the library resources you’ll use when you return to college are online. A few years ago, I worked as a teaching assistant in a human geography course. My students ranged in age from eighteen to sixty-seven. The last time the sixty-seven-year-old had been in a university library he used a card catalogue to find the books he needed. The eighteen-year-old had no idea what a card catalogue was! Library technology has changed a lot in the last fifteen years, and new digital resources exist that make learning more efficient than ever.

In order to write high-quality term papers when you return to higher education, you’ll need to be able to use your university library’s online resources. Spending a few hours when you first return to school familiarizing yourself with online databases and reference management software will help you write better papers faster for as long as you’re a student.

Online Databases:

Online databases are websites through which you can search for electronic copies of academic journal articles. Your university library’s webpage should link to these databases. There are general databases like Google Scholar, which lists journal articles for all academic disciplines, and discipline-specific databases.

Google Scholar is a great resource to use when you’re doing preliminary research for your term paper. Let’s say you’re taking an anthropology class, and your professor asks you to write a term paper on one research method in cultural anthropology. Go to Google Scholar, enter the search terms “cultural anthropology” and “research methods”, and spend a half hour or so looking through the search results for academic journal articles that address the topic.

Let’s say that after your Google Scholar search, you decide to focus on ethnography as a research method in anthropology. Google Scholar is a good resource, but there are online databases specific to each discipline. One of the main databases that anthropologists use is called AnthroBase. To find tailored references for your term paper on ethnography as a research method, navigate from your university library’s homepage to the AnthroBase site, and enter the search terms “ethnography” and “research method”. You should get a list of relevant articles to read for your paper. You can either read these articles online or print them out to read.

Each discipline has its own specialist databases, and your professor or teaching assistant will be able to tell you which ones are popular in that particular field. Your university librarian will also be able to point you in the right direction. Never be shy about asking which databases to use! Professors, teaching assistants and librarians are generally more than happy to help you out.

Reference Management Software:

Once you’ve found all those relevant journal articles to use for your term paper, how do you keep track of them all? Before reference management software was invented, you’d have to write down the author, title, and publisher of each book or article you wanted to cite in your term paper and hope you didn’t lose the list! Now, there are computer programs that do the job for you.

These programs let you store bibliographic information about the journal articles and books you’re reading. Not only can you store this information in the programs, but you can also use the software to reformat your lists of books and articles. Different disciplines use different formatting standards (the social sciences, for example, use APA style, and the humanities use a style called MLA). What this means is that even if you use the same book in your English paper and your anthropology paper, you’ll have to list the author, title, publisher, and publication date in a different order and style for each paper. If you type your bibliography by hand for each paper, this gets really tiring really fast. If you use reference management software to keep track of the articles and books you read, the process takes no time at all.

Reference management software is also called bibliographic management software. There are both commercial and free versions of this kind of software. The most popular commercial versions are programs called RefWorks and EndNote. They can be quite expensive, but many universities offer free versions to students. There are also dozens of free reference management programs out there, but quality can vary. A program called Zotero is one of the most popular free reference management programs.

Again, chances are your professor and teaching assistant use some of these programs themselves, so ask for their recommendations. If you’re not used to the software, it can take a few hours to learn to use, but it’s time well spent. These programs can save you hours and hours of time during your career as a student.

The existence of online databases and reference management software doesn’t mean that you’ll go through your career as a non-traditional student never opening a paper book or writing with a pen and notepad! Real books on real bookshelves are still a key part of any good university library, and one of the joys of being a student again is spending a few hours wandering through a good university library. But card catalogues are, for better or for worse, a thing of the past. If you know how to use these new technologies, you’ll be able to learn more in less time and make the most of your return to academic life.

Annamarie Ruelle lives in Vancouver, Canada. She’s a graduate student in the social sciences and has worked as a teaching assistant for undergraduate courses.