Posted by: Emily | July 29, 2008

Why use a subject specific database?

So I’m working on something that is mostly a hunch at this point, which is a little scary considering that it’s due by the end of August. It’s the sort of hunch that provides me with a handful of keywords–Foucault, spatiality, identity formation, sexuality–and a field of play–library and information science, natch. What I really need right now is a subject-specific database, Library Literature probably. How can I explain something this clear to me to students, and in two minutes or less?

Most of us know that sometimes a subject specific database is the best choice, while aggregated databases like Academic Search Premiere are better choices for other research questions or at other stages of the research process. I will often send a student to an aggregated database for news and current events research, obscure topics that come up empty in narrower databases, at the beginning of the research process, for interdisciplinary topics with no obvious subject specific database, or when we simply don’t have a resource to match a student’s research.

So, how to explain the difference? I invariably turn to my fishing analogy, even though I haven’t been fishing since I was twelve and it’s hardly a rite of passage for most of us these days: If I know that I want trout, I will drop my line in a well-stocked trout stream. If I’m just interested in fish, and I don’t particularly care what kind yet, I’ll drop my line in the ocean. If I’ve tried all the fishing holes I can find but haven’t found one with my species, I’ll give the ocean a chance–so many different kinds of fish, I’m bound to catch something.

Other analogies? Other thoughts on when to suggest aggregated vs. specific databases? And how have those of us using federated search tools changed the way we talk to students about databases?



  1. For an alternate analogy, how about the shopping mall? The department stores represent the aggregated databases. The smaller boutiques are the subject-specific ones.

    Now I’m imagining a baseball-cap-wearing frat boy at the reference desk — ask him if he’d rather look for hats at Target or Lids, and see what happens…

  2. The shopping mall analogy would be especially useful because it appeals to the inner consumer by connecting with (reinforcing) the familiar notion of information as a commodity.

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