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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > June 2017

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Vol. 37 No. 5 — June 2017

Twenty Critical, Authoritative, and FREE Electronic Databases
by Jeffrey Meyer

Online searching provides opportunities and challenges. How reliable is an online source? Where can I find authoritative information amid the millions of search results? Fortunately, many authoritative institutions have made their wellsprings of data freely available to the online searcher. Many of these databases are provided by public institutions, meaning that there is no entrance fee or subscription required to access their treasures. 

These free, online resources are important tools for the librarian’s kit, giving professionals fast answers from good sources. Librarians don’t need to wade through the millions of jumbled, anonymous, Wiki-style answers provided by online search engines. Speed and authority are often of the essence in reference work, and these 20 databases give librarians fast and authoritative answers for a wide range of topics. The following resources amount to a free electronic reference shelf. They have been grouped into topical subjects. 


1. American FactFinder, U.S. Census Bureau

How many people live in Ohio? What is the population of Buffalo, N.Y.? What percentage of the population is elderly? What is the median household income in St. Louis? All of these questions and more are easily answered with American FactFinder’s excellent searchable database of every town, city, county, and state in the U.S. FactFinder is a very useful source for official reports, homework, and grant writing. 

2. The World Factbook, CIA

The CIA has compiled a veritable encyclopedia of world geography. While the U.S. Census Bureau focuses on demographics within the U.S., the CIA casts an international net. The World Factbook can provide quick answers to many questions about the nations of the world. How many people live in Ireland? What percentage of Canada’s energy consumption comes from renewable resources? How do China’s defense expenditures compare to those of the U.S.? Obtaining substantial population, economic, and historical data about any nation is just a click away with The World Factbook.

3. UNESCO Institute for Statistics

UNESCO allows users to compare important datasets among various nations and regions. Users can choose an important issue, such as comparing literacy rates between wealthy and developing nations, and instantly compile charts and graphs with this data. UNESCO has collected data on each nation, detailing the availability their populations have to education, science, and culture. UNESCO also provides downloadable PDFs of official reports on these important issues.


4. Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida’s Natural History Collections

The Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida have created databases of the natural and social sciences. The collections include topics as broad as archaeology, ethnography, the natural sciences, and paleon­tology. The databases are broken down further into many different subfields, including historical archaeology, botany, and invertebrate paleontology. The subject databases allow for targeted searching, all of which leads to image galleries or specimen descriptions. For instance, students and researchers can use the historical archaeology ceramics database to search for examples of stoneware recovered from archaeological sites. 

5. Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Macaulay Library at Cornell University has compiled a substantial collection of images, audio, and video of birds. As of February 2017, a search for “blue jay” in the database brings up 5,494 images, 386 bird recordings, and 71 videos. Users can easily filter the search results by simply clicking on an icon for photographs, sound recordings, or video recordings. The database allows you to narrow the fields by location (Ohio) and season (August–November). These wildlife images, audio files, and video recordings are captioned, providing the date, place, and contributor name.

6. NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day

Jupiter. Colliding galaxies. Neutron stars. The Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) database is a great resource for captioned cosmic images. Not only are visitors greeted with a different high-quality image each day, but they can also browse a topical index to find specific images or use a search box to find images. Every picture has an information-rich caption that includes links for further information on important astronomy and physics concepts.

7. Endangered Species, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provides visitors with a registry of species listed as threatened or endangered. The database allows users to search their state or county for local endangered or threatened species. There’s an encyclopedia entry for each species, and it provides habitat information and geographic range, as well as petitions regarding the species’ status.

8. A to Z Index, EPA

Asthma. Bed bugs. Sulfur dioxide air pollution. The EPA’s A to Z Index provides up-to-date information on hundreds of topics related to ecology, green technology, natural resources, and environmental health. Each link offers information on these important topics, including official EPA reports, government regulations, and EPA recommendations. The index is easily searchable. Just press Control and the F key to initiate a browser search tool. 


9. Chronicling America, National Digital Newspaper Program

The National Digital Newspaper Program, a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, has digitized thousands of newspapers from all 50 states. The oldest newspaper digitized thus far is the Gazette of the United-States. The Gazette’s digitized files go back to 1789. These newspapers can be downloaded into PDF and JP2 formats. The National Digital Newspaper Program is a great resource for primary historical records.

10. FBI Records: The Vault

The FBI Vault, made available through the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), offers fascinating insights into government investigations of many important topics. Users can peruse the documents, all available for viewing in a web browser or downloadable as PDFs. Topics are organized into large subjects, such as civil rights and organized crime. These larger topics are then arranged into specific people (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and events (Alcatraz escape). And yes, there are many documents available under the category Unexplained Phenomenon. There is also a useful A–Z index for easy topical browsing. 

11. Digital Collections, Library of Congress

The Library of Congress’ Digital Collections contains numerous collections of archived photographs, videos, manuscripts, and documents. These resources are arranged for convenient browsing. Users can select a subject (Portrait Photographs), a specific collection (Prints and Photographs Division), or a media format (Film, Video). The amount of primary documentation here is simply staggering. Easily download a JPEG of a New York Giants baseball card from 1887 or browse Dorothea Lange’s dramatic photographs of Depression-era migrants. Every document contains detailed information, including creation date, material titles, and other contextual information. 

12. National Archives Catalog

Whether it’s reports from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson or notes written by John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the National Archives has an extensive collection of primary documents available online. The catalog search is presented in simple search engine format, which is handy for casual users. After a search term has been entered and the results appear, click on Available Online along the top banner to narrow the results to electronically accessible records. Researchers can easily adjust the results by chronology, file format, and subject. Users can seamlessly switch between results available in PDF, JPG, GIF, and a variety of other file formats. 

13. National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service

The National Park Service provides a nationwide catalog of sites, buildings, and landmarks that have met specific criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The search tools in this database allow users to look for historic sites in their communities and surrounding areas. Users can download PDFs of historic sites that include photographs and corresponding documentation. 


14. Mayo Clinic Patient Care and Health Information

The Mayo Clinic has four important and helpful databases, all arranged in a user-friendly alphabetical fashion. These databases—Diseases and conditions, Symptoms, Tests and procedures, and Drugs and supplements—provide jargon-free information about various conditions, treatments, and the useful “when to see a doctor.” It can be difficult to find authoritative and accessible medical information in plain language, but the Mayo Clinic’s databases do it all.

15. Diseases and Conditions, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides an A–Z database regarding a wide range of ailments. Users can find voluminous background information and statistics about specific conditions, as well as current research efforts regarding these conditions. The site also offers downloadable PDFs. Similar to the Mayo Clinic, the CDC provides this medical information in a manner that’s comprehensible to a general audience.


16. National Gallery of Art

Vincent van Gogh. Rogier van der Weyden. The National Gallery of Art has compiled a digital collection that is tanta­mount to a museum trip. Users can search for specific artists (Rembrandt) or composition titles (Man With a Sheet of Music). The gallery provides users with high-quality, color images of these art pieces, which can be downloaded as a JPG. Detailed captions provide background and context to these works. A zoom tool aids in image viewing. Search results can be filtered by medium, nationality, time period, and style. One can also browse the gallery’s highlights, prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, and other media. 

17. Deutsche Welle

Deutsche Welle (DW) is a German broadcasting agency that provides current events, human interest stories, and other content in 30 different languages. Users can click on a tab in the upper-right corner of the website to view content in English, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Greek, or one of dozens of other languages. DW provides language-learners with articles, radio broadcasts, and video in the selected target language. DW is a great place for language-learners to hear native speakers discussing a broad range of topics.

18. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University

Homer, Plato, Sir Francis Bacon, and hundreds of other classic writers are included in the Perseus Digital Library, a treasure trove of the classic works of Western civilization. This digital library contains these works in English as well as in their original languages, including Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Old English. In many of these works, users can click on an individual word to quickly obtain a translation of it. The database also allows users to search whole texts for keywords.


19. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Department of Labor

The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) is a go-to resource for those discerning where or how to begin a career in a specific field, as well as for those considering changing careers. A convenient search bar allows users to search for a specific career, such as lawyer or accountant. Each professional and vocational job has a fact sheet, which includes median pay, entry-level education, job growth, and estimated number of new positions opening during the next several years. Users are treated to an encyclopedic overview of a specific job, learning what education or experience is required for it. In addition, the OOH provides data on each field’s expected growth in the near future. Users can also search the database to find occupations by median pay, entry-level education requirements, projected number of new jobs, and growth rate.

20. W3Schools

It’s the 21st century and technology is impacting every vocational and career sector. Computer coding and web design are important skills in today’s workplace. W3Schools is a collection of web-coding language tutorials. This database provides thousands of examples of coding in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, SQL, PHP, jQuery, and other languages. For instance, tutorials demonstrate how to create a table in HTML or pad text in CSS. Those who currently edit websites or who want to learn how to code should have this database bookmarked. 

These 20 databases are great ready-reference tools to provide fast and authoritative answers for patrons and researchers. The web does not need to be a disordered or overwhelming mess of information. These free tools amount to an electronic reference shelf. 

Jeffrey Meyer ( is the director of the Mount Pleasant Public Library in Iowa. He gained an appreciation for data, graphs, and maps in graduate school, where he studied archaeology.