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Five Free Databases to Surprise Your Patrons
Volume 42, Number 1 - January/February 2018

Librarians love things that are free. They also are enamored with adding value. What does this have to do with the five free databases alluded to in the title of this article? They caught my eye not just because they are free but also because they might not be in places where library patrons are likely to look. Librarians themselves might need a reminder that even publishers such as Elsevier offer free materials.

Let me start with a seemingly odd anecdote about the concept of this article. When I was 12, I moved to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines as an Air Force dependent. Like lots of his fellow airmen, my father was an avid photographer. Judging by the results a half-century later, most of the pictures taken by his Air Force colleagues were of friends and loved ones lined up and smiling at the camera. Dad took pictures of things so obvious that no body thought twice about them—the base theater, the parade grounds, the chapels, and the bowling alley. I mounted these on the web 20 years ago, and they have been a blessing for untold thousands of people who once lived on the base. The images portray the entire experience by reflecting places taken for granted at the time. My point is that sometimes what is obvious to you might not be obvious to your patrons and can turn out to be a gold mine for them.


Elsevier’s products are a staple in well-funded academic, special, and medical libraries. ScienceDirect ( may arguably be considered its flagship product. Elsevier published my last two books, so we have a relationship. When asked recently to write something about ScienceDirect, I told the company I was no longer affiliated with any subscribing library. Elsevier then gave me a free pass to all its content.

As I looked through the database, I discovered something very surprising. While this is a massive database of solid academic material—articles from more than 3,800 journals and chapters from more than 37,000 books—some 250,000 articles are from peer-reviewed, open access (OA) journals. I tried searching dark matter and got almost 12,000 hits. The first screen was half populated with OA articles, all of which invited me to download a PDF version of the article. Not all science is equal. I then searched global warming . Although I got more than 78,000 hits, I found that only a tenth of the articles in the first screen were available for free; most invited me to purchase the PDF for $31.50. In the astronomy articles, I will admit that I could understand the conceptual introductions of each article but was lost when it drifted into higher mathematics.

A basic search lets you refine by date, publication, and content type; it does not let you refine by OA/free. If you click the Advanced Search tab, you can limit to “Open access only.” For global warming , this reduces the hits to some 4,600. Another option to obtain free versions of articles found in ScienceDirect is Unpaywall ( This Chrome extension searches for legal copies of articles. A padlock icon to the right-hand side of the screen tells you whether the article is locked or unlocked.

Digital Public Library of America

In my 50-year library career, I made it a point to be an observer of trends in library automation, so I tended to be an early adopter of any new sources. For some time and start ing in 2010, I followed the plans for the establishment of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA;, founded by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and intended to digitize the country’s cultural heritage. When the DPLA opened to view in the spring of 2013, I checked it out and came away with the impression that the concept was good but the content was lean. In 2015, when I was visiting libraries to portray in my book, a librarian from The New York Botanical Gardens told me that the institution was very active in this database and I should take another look.

I followed that advice and looked again at DPLA when I was starting a project about 1853 New York—the year that Mark Twain first visited as a teenager. I was delighted to find in DPLA city directories for that year, which gave the details of every business on Duane Street. This saved me a dozen trips to New York City, and I can safely say that the content is there.

Not only is DPLA a source for more than 12 million etexts and images, it is an introduction to the further work of DPLA partner institutions, such as the New York Public Library and HathiTrust.

DPLA does not consider itself a database. Instead, accord ing to its website, it is a platform. Developers use DPLA apps to engage with open data in a variety of ways, such as searching by image, mapping term frequency, linking searches of DPLA and Europeana, location search, and collection browsing. EBSCO created a widget that lets you include DPLA content in its discovery service. On its site, DPLA hosts exhibitions, shows a map of where its 120 contributing institutions are located (not all are in the U.S.), and has a timeline graph for its content. (It claims to go back to the year 1000, but there are errors in identifying date fields; proofs of U.S. dollar bills from 1902 are mislabeled as being from 1010.)


Librarians may wonder why this would be on my list, because OCLC is such a key factor in library services. However, it is safe to say that WorldCat ( is much better known to librarians than to authors and independent researchers. A few years ago, an author of religious books asked me if there was a way to find out which libraries are making her books avail able in ebook format, since they go back for decades. I told her there is, and she can use the service herself. More recently I was talking to a novelist whose first book was a substantial hit. I told him there was a website that would show his book’s availability in libraries all over the world. He could even see that copies were checked out and on reserve in Australia.

OCLC should take out an ad during the Super Bowl because many people could use the WorldCat service if they only knew it existed. On a similar note, the site aggregates the holdings of bookstores across America and provides a good search engine to find which bookstores carry a particular title. Years ago, my father mentioned that he had been visiting flea markets looking for the last Ernie Pyle book to complete his collection. Three days later, it was on his doorstep after a mystery donor found it on and had it sent to him.

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Terry Ballard is a retired librarian who worked in public and academic libraries. He is the author of three books and more than 75 articles, mostly about how libraries use technology to serve the information needs of their communities.


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