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

Internet Archive

Like WorldCat, the Internet Archive ( is much better known to librarians than patrons. Too bad, because there is a wealth of information here, as I found out in 2011 when I visited its headquarters in San Francisco while researching material for a book about libraries and social media. After seeing the massive and impressive GooglePlex, the Internet Archive headquarters was a refreshing change that reminded me of the student union of a liberal arts college.

There is much to love here, starting with its most popular product—the Wayback Machine, which displays webpages in their various iterations, going back to the beginning. You can use it to see the debut pages of sites such as eBay, YouTube, and Google.

In my tour, I saw its server room, which was not much bigger than my kitchen, and its scanning room, which was a hub of activity thanks to the digitization deals it has with libraries across the country. I mentioned at that point that I had given Internet Archive the nickname “the Rebel Alliance.” Once the books are scanned and online, they are readable using software that mimics the motion of page turning, so it is like the book is sitting in your lap.

Other products archived here include files in all media, including past concerts of the Grateful Dead. The building is a decommissioned church, and the pews of the former sanctuary contain full-size replicas of people. My guide said, “When somebody works here 5 years, a ‘Terracotta Digitizer’ is made in their honor and placed in the pews.” A current project is a Donald Trump archive, with thousands of his speeches at the ready to help settle any arguments about what he did or did not say.

In October of 2017, Internet Archive announced that it has begun to digitize a selection of books published between 1923 and 1941. These orphan works are titles whose copy rights were not renewed and whose authors or heirs could not be located. Furthermore, the titles cannot currently be in print (eliminating many titles by John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway). All of this makes careful use of a loophole in the copyright law that applies to libraries. The collection is ex pected to include thousands of titles. It bears the ironic name of The Sonny Bono Collection, in honor of the congressman who worked to keep the public domain limit at 1923.

Digital Commons Network

In 2002, the Berkeley Electronic Press (since changed to bepress) partnered with the California Digital Library to create an electronic archive of scholarly writings at the eight locations of the University of California ( Initially, it started with thousands of OA articles from faculty at these institutions. The idea took root, and by 2016, the network had grown to more than 500 partners, and the full library contained more than 2 million articles in PDF format, covering the full range of academic disciplines.

I was working at the College of New Rochelle in 2002, and the new scholarly resources librarian used my 70-plus publications as a test case. In the end, she was able to secure permissions from the publishers to make 45 of my works available in the archive. Most significantly, Information Today, Inc. gave permission to use my first book, INNOPAC: A Reference Guide to the System, in its entirety. Using a tracking mechanism provided by bepress, we could see that long-forgotten articles were finding a new life in downloads coming from all continents. Elsevier acquired bepress in August 2017, but I don’t expect this to affect the access into this network.

In the 2002 announcement of the Digital Commons Network, it was stated that OA articles were used in scholarship more than restricted access. Given the explosion of OA materials since then, it is likely not even close as of 2017.

Free sources of information are not limited to OA. As I hope I’ve demonstrated in this article, digitization makes out-of-copyright works available, preserves cultural her itage, and surfaces orphan works. Much of this material is hiding in plain sight, at least for library patrons. Just as my father’s photographs illuminated everyday objects on an Air Force base, the free databases I’ve discussed can light up your patrons’ lives.

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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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