What, precisely, is a database? What do they have to do with journals?

Databases, in my opinion, cause the most headaches for Brescia’s students.  This is largely because their function is confusing and their purpose unknown to novice researchers.  I will try my best to sum up a ridiculously complicated system in a simple way:

  1. Journals, like magazines, are collections of articles that are published periodically throughout the year (hence the word “periodicals,” which you might have heard).  Most of these journals require a subscription, much like other magazines like Macleans or People.  Journals  can be published either in print (like a magazine) or online – many are available in both formats.
  2. Western Libraries, along with the affiliate colleges, subscribe to literally thousands of journals.  Each of these can publish anywhere from 5 to 20 articles each issue.  Keeping track of every single article, therefore, is a difficult task.
  3. Instead of listing each individual journal article in our Shared Library Catalogue, we rely on databases to do this for us.  This means that, in simple terms, databases are big lists of journal articles and other periodicals.  Databases are not part of Western’s website, but are separate companies that we pay to provide these lists of journals.
  4. Because there are just so many journals available, databases are usually organized by subject.  Psychology journals, for example, are often found in a database called PsycINFO.  (There are multidisciplinary databases, though.  ProQuest Research Library, Web of Knowledge and Scholars Portal are the names of some very broad databases that house articles in many different subject areas).
  5. The same journal title might be indexed (or listed) in more than one database.  This means that if you look for articles first in PsycINFO and then in ProQuest, some of the same article titles may appear.
  6. Here’s where it gets tricky: we use databases to search for what articles are available on a topic.  For example, if I choose PsycINFO, I can research topics related to psychology and get a list of journals that exist.  It is not guaranteed, though, that PsycINFO will provide the online version of the journal article.  As we have learned, there are many reasons for this: Western may not subscribe to this journal at all; we may pay for a different database to provide full-text access, or; we may only get the journal in print.

To sum up: rely on databases for telling you how many articles, if any, is available on your topic.  To actually find these articles, you will want to use the Shared Library Catalogue: this will tell you which journals we subscribe to and how to find them.  For more help, see the blog post: “How do you find full text articles?