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Magazines > MultiMedia & Internet@Schools > September/October 2004
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Vol. 11 No. 5 — Sep/Oct 2004
Web-Based Databases and Search Tools
by Charles G. Doe
Media Specialist, Hastings Area Schools
Hastings, Michigan

Databases are collections of information that we use all the time. Telephone books are databases in a loose sense, and so is your Christmas card list. Schools, including K-12 schools and colleges, use databases in innumerable ways.

Remember that indispensable database that used to be found in your library—the card catalog?

The Internet has added whole new dimensions to databases—not only to the type and breadth of information available—but to the complexity and problems involved in getting the information. The Internet is, in some senses, a gigantic, monstrous database ... or databases within a database ... or databases within databases within a database. You get the idea.

Think of the Internet as a huge collection of index cards, each site composed of a number of cards, each page representing a card. The beauty of this amazing database lies in its infinite capacity to contain an enormous amount and variety of information, and the connections (read links) between cards.

The problem for any user, adult or student, is to work with this huge database effectively and efficiently to whatever ends are deemed important at the time. This enormity of the situation is implicit in the term "data mining."

To use the huge database we call the Internet effectively, we "mine" for gems and nuggets of information buried in a huge, electronic mountain of information. We don't need most of the mountain at any one time, we may never need most of the mountain, and there's a good chunk of it that we absolutely don't want—including the annoying, the obscene, and so on. When children are data mining, we can add dangerous or damaging information to the list of material to avoid.

In professional and college terms, data mining is enormously complicated, involving machine learning, statistical analysis, modeling techniques and more. Stanford and other universities teach classes in data mining. On the K-12 level, we don't use those things, but we can teach children the preliminaries, the basic tools. In fact, after the "3Rs," this essential component of information literacy may be the most important skill we can teach our children.

Students encounter a number of problems in this process—all the way from weak basic computer skills, to poor reading and skimming skills, to difficulty in picking the good information from the bad. Students may be distracted by the advertisements or extra information, as well as by just not knowing how to filter out issues and objects that don't matter in a specific data search.

Children need to be taught searching techniques. Then they can learn how to work with the information. To give students a chance to learn to use the Internet effectively, they need to have some of the distractions filtered out, some of the difficulties made easier. Children need more focused databases—databases with fewer distractions, whether from too much information, too many kinds of information, or advertisements.

This round-up takes a look at subscription databases aimed at K-12 education. Most of these are developed and priced to be offered through libraries. In fact, some may already be available through your school or public library, and you may have used college versions of some through your college library.

The Internet offers an enormous number of databases for K-12 schools, in one way or another. For this article, I chose subscription databases representing a variety of types, intending to illustrate the possibilities rather than offer a look or thorough review of all of the possible databases online. Many of these products offer free trials, even though this may not always be specifically mentioned here.

In general, these databases are available with annual subscriptions. The cost typically depends on the number of schools and individuals accessing the data. Costs can range from around $400 to $3,000 and up per year, based in part on the size of the database and the number of resources offered. A few databases even charge based on the number of times they are accessed. This can be very expensive. Purchasers on a tight budget need to investigate costs carefully.

Subscription databases will be discussed in four categories. The first consists of databases developed specifically for K-6 or K-8 students. The second category contains databases that meet specific multiple curriculum needs or are aimed at the entire curriculum and contain multiple information types. The third category contains databases with specific curriculum content (such as social studies only) or specific information type content (such as magazine or journal articles). The final category consists of databases that are primarily Web site collections.

Free vs. Subscription Sites

Before proceeding, I want to comment on why I focused on subscription sites. There are a large number of free databases on the Internet, some of which I've used with students as young as third grade. However, all of these sites have a problem: They need to pay for themselves or, sometimes, make a profit.

The sites that don't charge an access fee tend to use banner and pop-up ads that are distracting and sometime lead students into areas where they don't need to go. One of my first negative experiences with banner ads was an ad that took a student to a Victoria's Secret catalog.

In any given class, at least one or two students will always click on these ads, no matter what they're told. At first, I approached the problem by spending time talking with my elementary students about why they need to ignore the ads. While the students understand (and need to learn) this type of media literacy, the problems from these ads never quite seem to disappear, especially with older computers.

One case in point is FactMonster by InfoPlease, located at This is an online almanac that provides resources from an encyclopedia, dictionary, almanac, and other sources. Much of the site navigation is visual, which is excellent for younger students. A lot of the information is presented in tables, which is a little easier for students to read. However, since access to the site is free, the site is funded, at least in part, by advertisements. The site is larded with ads. The top and right side of every page contain at least one banner ad, and pop-up ads appear in other places.

Frankly, I'd rather pay a subscription fee and do without the ads. Of course, that's not the only reason to pay a subscription fee. The subscription sites discussed here are generally more useful because of their focus, the breadth of their content, or because of their controlled reading level. All in all, subscription sites make it easier to teach students how to search and provide better opportunities for students to practice searching techniques.

K-6 or K-8 Databases

KidsPage from NewsBank has been developed specifically for K-6 students by a company that has been around for a while. The company's database products include a Middle School Edition and School Library Collection for high schools, among others.

KidsPage features a colorful, pleasant, and user-friendly interface. The material includes articles from kids' sections in newspapers and magazines for young readers, such as Weekly Reader, Scholastic News, World Almanac for Kids, Highlights for Children, and more. The articles include color graphics and the database features political and topographical maps for all continents, countries, and states.

Searchers are able to use flexible key word searching, as well as visually aided navigation to find information about 200 curriculum topics. The selection of articles from kids newspapers and other kids sources makes the reading level less of an issue than it can be when using other types of databases with younger students.

An interesting resource is NewsBank's Big6 Resource Center, a program designed to help librarians and teachers support the development of student research skills.

Newsbank, Inc., 800/762-8182,

Searchasaurus from EBSCO Information Services is another database for younger students offered by a company that provides a number of databases for other levels and purposes. The site boasts a colorful, clever interface that includes animations such as erupting volcanoes and a dinosaur guide. The site's Lexile limiters enable teachers to control the reading level of content available to student users. As with many of these databases, a free trial is available at the site, along with information about EBSCO's many database products.

EBSCO Publishing, 800/653-2726,

Kids InfoBits from Thomson-Gale is a K-5 database that offers another wrinkle by splitting the search into two specific information levels, one designed for K-2 and one for grades 3-5. K-2 students use a topic tree with many icons representing topics as well as words. Upper elementary students can use the topic tree or go to keyword or phrase searching. Children at both levels are encouraged by a very attractive interface.

Thomson-Gale, 800/877-4253,

InfoTrac Junior Edition, aimed at middle school students, offers 24-hour unlimited access from home or school. The site has content from newspapers, magazines, and reference books (including encyclopedias and dictionaries) that are age-appropriate and easily accessed by subject, keyword, or advanced searches. An expanded K-12 edition—InfoTrac K-12 Kids Edition—is available.

Thomson-Gale, 800/877-4253,

Facts For Learning from Facts On File presents a logical and quality offering from a company that has specialized in print fact materials since 1940. This site is available in two modules, one for grades 2­5 and one for grades 5-8. The site contains materials from Weekly Reader, the World Almanac, Facts On File News Services, Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, texts from Gareth Stevens, and more. Among other features, the site has a library skills guide, calendars of daily and seasonal content, sections such as Born Today and Today in History.

Facts On File News Services, 800/363-7976,

K-12 Databases Offering Full Curriculum Content

eLibrary Curriculum Edition from ProQuest is one of a number of excellent database products from ProQuest. This more-general reference tool contains 2,000 full-text magazines, newspapers, reference books, and transcripts—in addition to thousands of pictures, maps, Web links, and audio/video content. This database has more than 500,000 images and pictures alone. A smaller database—eLibrary—is available for elementary schools.

Additional new content sources and features help to create a powerful curriculum support tool for English Language Arts, Social Studies, and so on. ProQuest Learning: Literature adds original full-text works, author biographies, literary criticism, and more. History Study Center adds sources covering ancient to modern U.S. and world history. ProQuest also offers an impressive amount of library and teacher support materials as well.

ProQuest Information and Learning, 800/521-0600,

SIRS Researcher is a general-reference database containing thousands of full-text articles exploring social, scientific, health, historic, business, economic, political, and global issues. The articles and graphics are selected from 1,500 domestic and international publications, with regard to content and age appropriateness. The difference between this and eLibrary, also from ProQuest, is that this database consists entirely of newspaper articles and similar information, with a greater emphasis on current events. In case you were wondering, SIRS Publishing, Inc. is now part of ProQuest.

ProQuest Information and Learning, 800/521-0600,

Reference Suite for grades 7 and up is a hyperlinked collection of five databases, which makes this service useful in most curriculum areas. The site includes Facts On File World News Digest, a complete full-text database of authoritative news and facts ranging from October 1940 to the present. The Issues & Controversies On File database contains analysis of most of the important current issues, written and indexed for students. The Today's Science On File database features the latest developments in science, health and medicine, and technology, written for students and updated every month. Also included are The World Almanac Reference Database and The World Almanac Encyclopedia.

Facts On File News Services, 800/363-7976,

Grolier Online from Scholastic is an online suite consisting of seven databases, the foundation of which is three encyclopedias—The New Book of Knowledge, Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, and the Encyclopedia Americana. Also available at additional cost are Nueva enciclopedia Cumbre en línea for Spanish speakers and Spanish-language students, The New Book of Popular Science, Lands and Peoples, and America the Beautiful (offering state-by-state history and current events). Most of these contain K-12 material.

Scholastic Library Publishing, 800/621-1115,

EBSCOhost has customizable basic and advanced searching supported by Boolean logic, enhanced subject indexing, and by journal. The database offers links from the full-record display to related articles by subject, journal issue, or author. This product offers a range of search features that are far more complicated and more powerful than some of the databases discussed here. EBSCOhost allows students to print, e-mail, or download multiple articles.

EBSCO Publishing, 800/653-2726,

World Book Online is an online reference source that contains every article from the 22-volume print set of encyclopedias plus additional articles, multimedia, editor-reviewed Web sites, and more. Basically, the site is an electronically expanded version of the print World Book. One of the advantages of the online version is that online reference sources are far easier to search. Since this is an encyclopedia, it is useful across the curriculum. A nice feature of the online version is the Learning Zone, with extra teacher and student resources.

World Book, Inc., 800/975-3250,

More Focused or Specialized Databases

These databases focus on one or two subjects, or on specialized information sources. Several of the companies already mentioned have numerous focused or specialized databases, as well as those discussed below.

American History from ABC-CLIO is one of five subscription databases from a company that specializes in history and geography databases for middle and high schools, as well as public libraries and colleges. American History, a Web site that can be accessed at home or school, features easy navigation, lots of primary and secondary resources, and a number of interesting features. Content is aligned with curriculum and educational standards. The site includes lessons, handouts, overviews, test creators, and more. One interesting feature is a survey of American history from 1350 to the present, organized chronologically and thematically with a number of links. The cost is $599 a year.

ABC-CLIO, 800/368-6868,

WBIS (World Biographical Information Systems) Online is published by K.G. Saur and marketed by Thomson-Gale as the "most comprehensive biographical database available." That certainly seems to be the case with 2.28 million full-text biographies, with 1.3 million individuals categorized by country or specific language/cultural areas. The database also provides an index to 30 biographical archives totaling 5.7 million articles about more than 3.6 million people. Definitely for older students, WBIS Online can be accessed in five languages.

Thomson-Gale, 800/877-4253,

Biography Reference Bank combines Wilson Biographies Plus Illustrated, Biography Index (periodicals), full-text articles, page images, and abstracts from the complete range of Wilson databases, creating Wilson's largest biography database yet, covering more than 500,000 individuals. Links connect nearly every article focused on any individual in nearly every WilsonWeb database. Approximately 1,000 profiles are added yearly. Biographies include historical figures, as well as current notables.

Wilson Biographies Plus Illustrated alone is a biography database of more than 120,000 narrative biographies or profiles with links to full-text articles, 32,000 images, and more. This is a middle school and older student resource.

H.W. Wilson Company, 800/367-6770,

FirstSearch—I'm including FirstSearch as an example of the broad extent of some databases. I've used this database in a college context; it certainly isn't suitable for use below high school and may even be too expensive and complicated for most high schools. It is definitely for use with advanced research projects.

FirstSearch offers access to dozens of databases through what it calls "WorldCat" and 10 million full-text and full-image articles. This is a "bibliographic" database, providing the location of articles in the home or other libraries. The full-text articles are available at an additional cost, sometimes to the user. The database offers three levels of customizable searching and is available by subscription or purchasing blocks of 500 searches.

OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc., 800/848-5878,

LexisNexis Scholastic Edition is designed to give high school students Web-based desktop access to authoritative research sources. This is the high school version of the LexisNexis Academic service, used by faculty and students at more than 1,600 colleges and universities in the U.S. It is definitely aimed at high-school-aged students who are going on to college.

Using this database, students get experience searching for source material, including articles from major U.S. and international newspapers, non-English language publications, and sources covering statistics, federal and state case law, codes, and legislation. LexisNexis Scholastic Edition uses the kind of technology that students will encounter in college. The content covers four basic areas—news, legal research, legislation, and statistics.

The School Edition is priced at $1,995 per year for schools with one to 799 students and $2,495 for schools with 800 or more students.

LexisNexis Academic & Library Solutions, 800/638-8380,

CLCD (Children's Literature Comprehensive Database) is a database for K-6 teachers, librarians, childcare providers, and parents that helps educators make appropriate literary choices for children and for library cataloging. CLCD is an acquisition, research, and reference service that offers 900,000 MARC records and more than 150,000 reviews of children's books from 27 review sources, all full-text searchable.

This subscription-based online service is accessed with a password. This database is different from others we've discussed in that it isn't aimed at students at all, but is intended to be a tool for teachers and others. A month's subscription is $29.95; an annual subscription is $275 per building.

Children's Literature, 301/469-2070 or 800/469-2070,

BookWhere is an even more specialized database for librarians. This is a Web-based cataloging service that enables librarians to search and retrieve MARC records online. (If you're not a librarian, you may not know that a MARC record must be generated for every book in the library and every new book that comes in to be used for electronic cataloging systems.) Creating MARC records can be a slow and painful process, so this can be a very useful database, especially if many new books are coming into the system. Since this is a more specialized database, aimed at a smaller user group, it is less expensive than nearly all of the databases discussed so far.

WebClarity Software Inc., 800/661-7274,

Databases of Internet Sites

The databases included in this category are specialized in yet another way, being primarily or exclusively extensive catalogs of Web sites. The producers of all of these databases say the sites are carefully selected and that the database is maintained by removing dead (no longer working) sites and adding new ones. These sites don't have topic information as such, but lead to sites that do. All are organized in one way or another by curriculum. Many of the databases discussed earlier include Web links to sites with information relating to topics, but not at the levels contained in the following databases.

At the time this article was written, WEB FEET was a recent acquisition of Thomson-Gale and another one of its many excellent subscription databases. This database includes cross-curricular Web sites selected and reviewed by librarians, educators, and subject specialists. These vetted Web sites are useful for curriculum areas, general-knowledge topics, and professional resources.

WEB FEET is available online, in MARC record for library catalogs, or in print format. Schools, public libraries, college libraries, and special libraries can choose from several WEB FEET collections including WEB FEET Core Collection (middle school to adult), WEB FEET K-8 Collection, WEB FEET K-12 Collection, WEB FEET Academic Library Collection, WEB FEET Public Library Collection, and WEB FEET Health Collection.

Thomson-Gale, 800/877-4253, or

netTrekker from Thinkronize bills itself as a "search engine for schools" and enables fast searching of 180,000 Web sites, organized by curriculum and aligned with state academic standards and benchmarks. This database is aimed at K-12 and includes elementary, as well as secondary, material. The Web sites are pre-screened and educationally relevant.

Search engines can make a real difference in the nature and quality of searching and netTrekker is said to contain one of the best. Searching is enhanced by dynamic timeline, cross-curricular, and famous person search.

Access to netTrekker is $1,195 per school building per year. Multi-building and district discounts are available. On-site professional development is available for $1,000 per day. Thinkronize, 877/517-1125,

iNet Library is a Web-based service with log-in IDs and passwords. Like netTrekker, it offers a collection of vetted Web sites, more than 260,000 educational resources and educator sites in 19 sections, 350 categories, and 2,032 subcategories. The database includes 483 current events sites, 231 museums, 84 picture galleries, and 40 encyclopedia sites in the reference section. Also included are sites for 4,000 magazines and periodicals and 700 daily newspapers, some of which are searchable. The Educational Resources section features more than 20,000 sites, 3,250 Lesson Plans, and 30,000 Educational Subjects.

Curriculum Advantage, 888/841-4790,

In Conclusion

Nearly all of the databases discussed here share certain characteristics. All have search mechanisms, and many have a means of visual navigation, except for the more complicated products aimed at older students. The databases designed for younger students all have visually appealing interfaces and include information screened to some degree. The sources of information are similar or, in some cases, almost the same. Nearly all offer free trials; these should certainly be taken advantage of before a purchase is made.

All this having been said, here are a few more specific suggestions about determining factors. Carefully evaluate what you need and how often the database will be used. Many of these databases are too expensive to waste.

Do your students have enough computer access time to make good use of the database? Do they have the basic skills needed to use the databases effectively, or is a great deal of preliminary training required? Do your teachers have the basic skills and understanding necessary to both use and teach the databases? Is the database too large and complex for your district? Is the database too expensive for the amount of use it will receive in these cash-strapped times?

Finally, check the support material and training offered by the various companies. Some provide wonderful support materials, while other databases don't need that type of support.

In general, Web-based databases are wonderful resources that are definitely being used—or will be used—in most schools, in one form or another. Our students must to be able to use these resources efficiently and effectively to meet the challenges they will face as adults, to realize their full potential in this age of increasingly complex technology, and to become fully information-literate.

Charles Doe has been teaching for 32 years, including 20 years as a Title I reading specialist and 3 years as a media specialist. In addition to presenting and writing articles, he has been involved with computers in education for 12 years. He also is a long-time product reviewer for MultiMedia & Internet@Schools magazine. Communications to the author may be addressed to Charles Doe, Media Specialist, Hastings Area Schools, 232 W. Grand, Hastings, MI 49058;

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