Subscription Databases at the Salt Lake County Library System

In looking at the subscription databases offered by these four library systems, I want to inquire after the same three points that I looked at in my review of their OPACs. My goal is to determine what paths users can take to access the databases: is there one central place where they are listed, or are there many pages and places directing users to the same databases. Beyond this, I’m particularly interested to find out what types of descriptions are given of the various databases and their use, as well as how they are presented for children and teachers. In order to pursue these issues, I will be asking these three questions:

  • What pathways are available for accessing the databases?
  • What type of assistance is available to explain or guide the use of the databases?
  • What explanations/tools are available to determine which database to use, particularly for those looking for materials for Children?

As with the OPACs, some library webpages are simpler then others, and the Salt Lake County Library system has a site that is stuffed full of features and links. This provides many ways to access the information, but also means that there are more ways for users to get lost. Focusing on not only what databases are available, but how easy it is to find them will help me to understand what the user experience is like.

Pathways for Accessing Databases:
From the website of the Salt Lake County Library System, there are many ways to access the various databases that the system and the Pioneer state library system offer for users. On the front page alone there is a quick search feature, links to featured resources, and a side panel made up of databases and services related to books and movies. There are also at least three links to additional pages with lists of databases.

Main Database Page:
Whether it is one of the links on the main page of the website, the link from the top bar of the page frame, or from the tool bar inside the OPAC, the user looking for databases is directed to a central page. This page called “Database Research by Topic” actually offers various ways to interact with the resources. First is a Quick Search interface, like the one on the front page of the library website. After that there is a list of pages each with databases on a specific topic—one of 17 areas, and under that is a link to an alphabetical list of databases. At the bottom of the page there are direct links to specific vendor’s interfaces, so users can search all EBSCO databases or all Thomson-Gale databases all together.

In addition to these access points, links to databases are also present from within lists of recommended websites. Kids and Teens Homework Help Pages contain lists of resources, both internet and subscription databases. The databases are lumped in with all of the other pages, with a caveat that users will need to have their Salt Lake County Library card number to access them from home. In addition, the library has pages aimed at adults wherein subscription databases mingle with websites.

Beyond the various pages with links to the subscription databases, perhaps the most interesting way to access the databases is through the Quick Search. This search tool allows users to simultaneously look in more then one database, as well as the catalog, and the webpage. It also allows searches in specific topic areas, such as Biographies, Science, Arts, and others. In order to use the search users need to have a Salt Lake County library card number, they are then directed to a page listing results for search term from each individual database. These results can be grouped in lot of different ways, by relevance, by database, and by traditional sorting features of author and title.

Assistance in Using the Databases:
The Salt Lake County Library does offer some guidance to assist their patrons in using their databases. In particular, the library offers an explanation of what databases are and why users would want to use them over just searching the internet. For children and parents they offer a good description of why databases are good choices for homework assignments, and even have a letter that students can give to their teachers

Beyond these short explanations, users can find tutorials within most of the databases to guide them in finding answers, though the library does not make any mention of these tools. They also do not have general database use assistance, such as explanations of Boolean logic.

Database Choice—Descriptions and Age Appropriateness:
One of the most difficult factors for libraries and library users is selecting where to look for the answers to any information need, something that is exacerbated by the internet that offers millions of different possibilities. Librarians overcome this information overload by becoming familiar with a wide range of resources so that they can direct people to the ones that might closely match their needs and developmental level (such as a consumer health database as opposed to Medline). On library webpages, it is necessary to provide some of this type of guidance so that users know what they are likely to find in a database—especially when sites require users to log in with a library card number in order to use each and every database.

In a lot of ways, the descriptions of databases are crucial tools to assist users in making decisions, they need to tell users not only what the database is, but who it is aimed at, and what kinds and forms of information will be retrieved. While the Salt Lake County Library does have an alphabetized list of databases with descriptions, these kinds of lists tend to overwhelm the user if they don’t know the specific tool they are looking for. For that reason, the library breaks the databases down by topic, creating subject specific pages. These pages contain lists of databases with descriptions that all have a similar topical link. Many databases are in more then one subject area—such as biographical tools are in many as they profile people in many subject areas.

Another major issue in listing databases is whether to group services offered by one provider or lump them together. For instance, World Book Encyclopedia offers interfaces for Kids, Students, Spanish speakers, and an adult interface, some libraries list each interface as a distinct tool, while others group them. In general, Salt Lake County Library system groups about half of their databases together. They break up EBSCO and Thomson-Gale databases into the individual subscriptions, but for the ones they lump together, they provide a list of the services offered within the broader subscription. This allows users to see all of the interfaces in one place and to find out about some tools that might not be individually listed. For instance the entry for the World Book service looks like this:

World Book Encyclopedia
Here you will find links to World Book Online’s:
World Book Encyclopedia
World Book offers more than 25,000 encyclopedia articles that are carefully edited to suit the educational level of the users most likely to use them, from grades 4 through 12 and adults.
World Book Atlas
The 500 maps in the online atlas cover the whole globe interactively, linking to each other, and directly to articles on continents, countries, states, provinces, cities and other places shown on the maps.
World Book Dictionary
The dictionary contains approximately 248,000 entries. Users can either search for a word or double-click on any word appearing in a World Book article for a definition.
World Book Research Libraries
U. S. History – Witness the origins, struggles and continuation of the United States of America.
Political Science & Law – Peruse the major developments in law, order, justice and government.
Enciclopedia Estudiantil Hallazgos
La Enciclopedia estudiantil hallazgos en línea es una enciclopedia de conocimientos generales. Contiene información sobre gente, lugares, objetos, acontecimientos e ideas. Aprovecha esta enciclopedia para investigar y divertirte.
Special Features
Behind the Headlines – A feature that uses World Book articles to explain the complex events that shape our world today.
Back in Time – The approximately 13,000 historic articles from past World Book Year Books present a you-are-there account of the most significant events of each year.
Surf the Ages – Visit imaginary news sites from Ancient Times, The Middle Ages, or Modern Times. Then, link to dozens of e-zines, want ads, bookstores and other types of simulated Web sites, written from the perspective of that time.
This database is brought to you by Salt Lake County Library Services

Some of the larger subscription databases, such as EBSCO and Thomson-Gale, are listed by the individual database, even when the search interface is the same. In part this is to highlight the wide array of topical areas provided through different databases—from Consumer Information to Science searches, but in this case it is also because access to some databases is provided by the Pioneer State Library system and some by the Salt Lake County library system.

 

One advantage of many of these large database systems is that they feature age specific interfaces that allow children to search material that is either aimed at their interests or written at their developmental level. The searches aren’t perfect, but the library can list them as suitable for youth which helps direct students and parents in their information search. At Salt Lake County system there is a page specifically for students, with just those databases aimed at youth. There is no effort, however, to direct different age groups to the appropriate tool.

For instance, EBSCO produces multiple search options and interfaces for different age/grade levels. Two of these specific age appropriate searches are listed on the student resource page, but the descriptions do not mention the fact that they are aimed at different age ranges—even though EBSCO explicitly names the “Student Resource Center” as Middle School and High School. The page also does not include  link to the Searchasaurus interface, which the library does have access to, and which is aimed at lower grade levels.

 

Overall Review of Database Accessibility:

 

Taken as a whole the Salt Lake County Library has many paths to access their subscription databases, but they could strengthen their service to their patrons by providing more complete descriptions of the databases, particularly those aimed at children. In addition, the need to sign in for each and every database is very cumbersome, as compared to establishing proxy access that would permit users to access databases for a certain amount of time. By making a few small corrections, the library system could greatly increase their ability to serve youth with their databases.

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