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Best Databases 2012

It’s said that in a recession, people opt for old-world comforts. While in the electronic world there isn’t much that’s old world, the librarians who responded to this year’s call for best-database nominations name some mainstays that are likely to inspire some e-nostalgia. Consumer Reports, CultureGrams, and Guide to Reference are resources we’ve relied upon in libraries for years, and their electronic incarnations are now bringing solid, back-in-the-day reference to the Wikipedia generation. There are some whippersnappers listed here too—game-changers, even—such as online newsstand Zinio and JoVE, the Journal of Video Experiments. In the middle is the bread-and-butter of reference these days: journal and ebook databases that patrons today expect as standard and that librarians can’t imagine how they lived without.
If it’s been a while since library school, or if your reference class was a blur of almanacs, encyclopedias, and citation indexes, take a look at Michael F. Bemis’s guide to databases in the sidebar below. Describing resources including the United States Government Internet Directory and Fulltext Sources Online, he makes figuring out which database to use and where to find it a breeze.


Gale Virtual Reference Library
Gale, part of Cengage Learning;http://gale.cengage.com/gvrl

Gale’s been busy this year. Its archival offerings are bursting at the seams, with the company recently launching Nineteenth Century Collections Online, an archive of period documents and images that follows a popular resource covering the prior century. Gale was also lauded by respondents for its new archives of popular magazines: Liberty Magazine Historical Archive, 1924–1950 and National Geographic Magazine Archive, 1888–1994. But an old favorite takes top honors: Gale Virtual Reference Library, or GVRL, which Lura Sanborn of St. Paul’s School Library, NH, says “allows me to re-create my reference collection, both back- and frontlist titles, in digital form.”

Our review of the database relaunch (LJ 2/1/12) noted that it allows librarians to build collections title by title, just like they are used to doing with print books. The database offers more than 7000 digital reference titles from 80 publishers, and the upgrade made searching easier than ever, with granular options for advanced users and keyword searching of a broader range of fields for novices. Has reference usage been lagging? Gale helps there, too. The GVRL “Promote Your Gale eBooks” page offers search widgets that can be used on the library’s homepage or elsewhere, MARC records so that ebooks can be integrated into the online catalog, and other promotional goodies such as linked book cover images.

Best new database

Zinio for Libraries
Zinio and Recorded Books; www.zinio.com

Recorded Books, the audiobook workhorse that’s been around since 1979, has gotten into the magazine business, partnering with UK digital magazine distributor Zinio to offer Zinio for Libraries. Janice McPherson, adult services manager at Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, explains that her library has just added the service, which offers online access to magazines using PCs, Macs, and a variety of mobile devices. Patrons and staff couldn’t be more pleased, she says, with the cover-to-cover access to about 4000 magazines, notification about new issues, multimedia, and social-media interactivity. “Everyone in town could be reading Consumer Reports free through their public library using their library card,” says McPherson, adding that the digital newsstand includes specialized publications that the library could never otherwise order. “In addition to Consumer Reports,” she explains, “titles include The Economist, HELLO!, Car and Driver, Food Network Magazine, House Beautiful, and Holiday Baking. Michael Nizt of Appleton Public Library, WI, echoes McPherson’s nomination, citing “tremendous patron support” of Zinio. Since the library got access, he says, it has had more than 800 users sign up for the service, who have since accessed more than 5000 issues. As online publishing matures, more and more publications are experimenting with paywalls, so it’s not surprising to learn from Nitz that, “[w]e’ve had local residents obtain library cards just to gain access to Zinio.” Ann Hokanson of Austin Public Library, MN, says that Zinio is a hit in her library, too. “I see our patrons reading our Zinio magazines on their devices in the library, next to our print periodicals,” she says.


Oxford Scholarly Editions Online
Oxford University Press; www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com

Authoritative sources are crucial to literary scholarship, but sometimes it’s difficult to know which source is the right one, or even if there is an agreed-upon authoritative version of a particular work. Oxford cuts through the muddle with this database that offers “trustworthy, annotated texts of writing worth reading.” Specifically, the resource now offers 170 works written between 1485 and 1660, notably including the complete texts of Shakespeare’s plays and the poetry of John Donne. The database is set up to be accessed in two broad ways: by edition and by work. Those studying Shakespeare’s As You Like It, for example, can browse or search by author and will be presented with a list of Oxford editions in which the play appears and the play itself. The script is accompanied by a running commentary and explanations; next to Act 2, Scene 2, of As You Like It, for example, is a note telling users that that portion of the work was often omitted from productions. The current holdings are just the beginning. The next module of works to be added will be from the Restoration, and the database will grow in chronological steps, says the publisher, until it includes “all of Oxford’s distinguished list of authoritative scholarly editions, from the Oxford Classical Texts to the Romantic poets, and from medieval Latin chronicles to the twentieth century.”

best for library outreach

Mango Languages
Mango Languages; www.mangolanguages.com

Time was when libraries could offer Rosetta Stone, a product that sold itself, given that there was consumer marketing of it in the world outside of libraries. That day is gone, but rejoice: the gap in library collections has been ably filled by Mango Languages, an online language-learning tool. Christine Sharbrough of Derry Public Library, NH, is a big fan of the company’s language instruction and of its customer service. In the past, Sharbrough says, she’s looked for ways to promote her library’s resources better, and Mango Languages is an ideal partner in that regard. She explains that her library serves a growing ESL population and has partnered with the local Adult Learner Services group to give tours and provide access to the Mango Languages program via users’ library cards. The company, she says, “is super responsive to our requests for information about new languages. Its customer service is fabulous.” Another benefit of the database, which offers lessons on 16 languages including French, Hindi, Japanese, and Hebrew, as well as English for speakers of Spanish, Polish, Turkish, and more, is its interactivity with the library. “We have a points board on the Mango site,” explains Sharbrough, “and we earn points that can turn into useful Mango ‘stuff.’ ” The library can use these items—free mousepads, coffee mugs, pens, notepads, T-shirts, etc.—as prizes. “We promote [Mango], they give us tchotchkes. It’s a win-win for both sides.”

best ebook database

ebrary Academic Complete
ProQuest; www.ebrary.com/corp/academic.jsp

Lura Sanborn of St. Paul’s School Library, NH, describes the academic portion of ebrary’s ebook database as a “perfect jumping-off point” for libraries starting an ebook program. Indeed, starter packs are available from the ProQuest-owned company, which also offers collection development assistance in various fields, or libraries can choose their own books. The more than 78,000 titles come from top academic publishers such as Elsevier, which in August added 1000 science and technology ebooks to the database, and 50,000 Spanish-language titles are available as an optional add-on to a subscription. Sanborn cites ebrary’s content and access features as a win for librarians and patrons. Titles can be purchased using patron-driven acquisition options, she explains, and can then be read by an unlimited number of simultaneous users. As well as the industry standard subscription options, ebrary provides perpetual ownership of books and—more unusual—book rental.

BEst PRofessional REsource

Guide to Reference
American Library Association; www.guidetoreference.org/HomePage.aspx

From the 1902 first edition through the 11th in 1996, Guide to Reference Books, published by the American Library Association, has been a bedrock title in the field of librarianship. In 2008, a metamorphosis occurred: what would have been the 12th print edition was issued solely as a subscription database, with the title Guide to Reference. It was a welcome change, says LJ reviewer Michael F. Bemis, since not only was the 2020-page 1996 print edition clumsy to handle physically, it was time-consuming to use. The revamp also alleviated the problem with any print resource but especially one that is time sensitive, such as an annotated bibliography: it is almost immediately obsolete. The digital Guide to Reference is updated continuously by a small army of reviewers, each responsible for a particular section. Best of all, says Bemis, in the case of websites, the digital version takes users directly to the desired material. Hyperlinks for various help screens make navigation a breeze, as does the Google-like search box for performing keyword queries. One aspect that thankfully hasn’t changed is that the annotations are still informative and concisely written and cover the most authoritative factual sources for any given field of inquiry.

best original content

Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE)
JoVE; www.jove.com

The best ideas seem obvious in hindsight. Peer-reviewed journals are the gold standard in science publication; that academic rigor has now been applied to videos of science experiments. The PubMed-indexed JoVE, which began as a 17-video archive in 2006, has grown to offer more than 1900 peer-reviewed videos of life science experiments, each accompanied by a textual portion that includes step-by-step instructions and a materials list. The video and text articles, some of which are open access, address the necessity and difficulty of reproducing new studies describing novel techniques. Material is released monthly just like a regular journal. Since scientists are generally not trained in media production, JoVE offers assistance in that regard, and as Bonnie Swoger explained in her review of the database (LJ 9/15/12), the videos undergo “intensive editorial review” in addition to regular peer scrutiny. In a nod to the international nature of science, the written submissions to JoVE include links to translate the text into Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, or Turkish, using Google Translate.

Best for reports

ProQuest; www.proquest.com/en-US/catalogs/databases/detail/culturegrams.shtml

CultureGrams is all grown up, says Gary Price, cofounder and editor of InfoDocket.com, who names it as his favorite database. The resource is now offered as a regularly updated ProQuest product in addition to its still being available as a print work. What remains constant is its nature: something between Wikipedia and the CIA’s World Factbook, CultureGrams offers reliable, accessible information on countries, with each entry written by a local expert. There are several editions, each tailored to the needs of a particular patron group. World Edition covers 208 countries and territories, and its focus on 25 cultural categories for each one means that comparisons can be easily made. The States and Provinces Editions profile each U.S. state, the District of Columbia, and Canadian provinces, while the Kids Edition uses a fun approach to teach children up to middle-school age about the world around them. Report writers these days expect multimedia, and the database doesn’t disappoint; it offers thousands of photos as well as videos and themed slide shows. A new “Faces of the World” feature provides almost 100 video interviews in which people from around the world bring their culture to life. The user-friendly interface also facilitates the creation of data tables comparing different locations and provides premade tables. CultureGrams even offers five local recipes per location, all easing the pressure on libraries’ series non­fiction collections. Marketing assistance is there, too, at the “Spread the Word” page.

Best upgrade

Gale, part of Cengage Learning; www.questia.com

In 2010, Gale bought Questia, a website that was familiar to librarians as providing access to books, and a limited number of articles, for the college-paper market. The upgrade announced this year has been a hit with senior secondary users at Carolyn Sinclair’s library, who benefit from the fire-power added by Gale’s vast stores of material. Questia now claims to offer “thousands of new books and millions more articles,” for a total of six million items that are organized into student-friendly categories such as history, literature, art and architecture, politics and government, and science and technology. The database offers “Project Organization” tools—“You do the thinking,” says the promotion, “let Questia handle the organizing”—and while these are standard in today’s databases, the beauty of Gale’s eye-catching product is that the tools are presented to users in an unusually inviting way. Questia has an Amazon-like vibe; it offers ebooks, for example, in a slide show that pushes featured titles on a particular theme as well as popular and newly added works. Other options since the overhaul include access to research tutorials that promise to “guide users through professor-approved approaches” to writing papers. Dictionary, thesaurus, and citation tools are there, too, and a handy “global-search” box appears on every page.

patron favorite

Consumer Reports
EBSCO; www.ebscohost.com/public/consumerreports

It’s technically a file on EBSCOhost rather than a database of its own. Either way, electronic access to Consumer Reports reviews goes a long way to making libraries look more relevant to consumers who assume that everything’s available on the Internet. Incredibly, according to EBSCO, consumerreports.org is “the largest paid-publication subscription-based website in the world.” Information from it is popular with patrons at St. Joseph County Public Library, in South Bend, IN, which the library’s database facilitator, Shanti Nand, explains is a popular-materials library. Patrons there make regular use of digital access to material from the print Consumer Reports—product overviews, tester reviews, report cards—but also extras such as articles, blog entries, and ­videos.

Contributors: Michael F. Bemis, Washington Cty. Lib., R.H. Stafford Branch, Woodbury, MN; Ann Hokanson, Austin PL, MN; Janice McPherson, Pikes Peak Lib. Dist., Colorado Springs; Shanti Nand, St. Joseph Cty. PL, South Bend, IN; Michael Nitz, Appleton PL, WI; Gary Price, InfoDocket.com; Lura Sanborn, St. Paul’s School, Concord, NH; Christine Sharbrough, Derry PL, NH; Carolyn Sinclair (location withheld); and other of LJ’s book and database reviewers.

Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.


  1. Don Richardson says:

    Thanks for the article on best databases 2012. You may have heard from others already, but JoVE is the Journal of Visualized Experiments, not Video. Thought you’d want to know.