I talk often about how to best use a bibliographic database for your literature search, but I’ve realised that I’ve never posted here a clear account of what a bibliographic database actually is.
So let’s repair that mistakes and dive into the mysteries of bibliographic databases.
But let’s start with an image.
In its most simple expression, *this* is a bibliographic database:
I guess you’ve all seen an all library card file before, haven’t you?
In those files, you would find one index card for each book held by the library. On the card would be written information about the book (its title, author, number of pages, etc.), its content (an abstract, some keywords, etc.), and where to find it on the library’s shelves (its shelfmark).
In the example above, those index cards are ordered by topic (astronomy, fish, homemaking…) but you could also find them filed by author for example.
How does it relate to modern bibliographic databases?
Online bibliographic databases work along the same principle.
They hold records about documents that say what they are like (is it a journal article, a book, a thesis? When was it published? By who? etc.) and what their content is (with an abstract, keywords, etc.).
Sometimes, you also have a link towards the full-text of the document, depending if it’s freely available (in Open Archive for example) or if your library has bought access to it. But sometimes not: it will be your responsibility to look for the document yourself if you want to read it (and here is exactly how to do that).
You can search through those records by using a search feature: you type in a few keywords, and you see the related records in the results (here is how to do an efficient search in a bibliographic database).
You can also browse through the subjects, as you would have done by looking through a physical index file, by looking at the database’s thesaurus (sometimes also called index).
What should we retain from this metaphor?
- A bibliographic database holds records about documents, not the documents themselves.
Sometimes it will point you directly toward the full-text of the document, but sometimes not.
- One database doesn’t hold *every single document* existing. Not even every single document on a topic.
You wouldn’t expect a library card file to hold index cards of books that wouldn’t be in the library, would you? Just as such, a bibliographic database is limited.
Though, in this case, it is not limited by the documents held in a specific building: it might be limited by a topic (i.e.: PsycINFO is only about psychology), a language (the biggest databases hold mostly records about documents written in English), their availability (if a document’s very existence has never been digitized -because it was written three centuries ago and is still buried somewhere inaccessible for example- then there’s very little chance it’s going to appear in your database of choice), etc.
This is why you need to use many different databases if you want to try and be completely thorough.
- You can use different entry points to search a database.
Just as you had a subject index and an author index file in your old library, you can use different index types to search a database: keywords, authors, title, language, location, classification, and more. To search through a specific index type, you’re going to use a specific “field”.
Is it a little clearer now? You can ask your questions in the comments!