Author Archives: Rebecca Federman

It’s the Content, Stupid.

I teach workshops on library databases to a range of users throughout the year at the New York Public Library. Some of the walk-in students are academics, others are unaffiliated scholars, and many more are undergraduate or graduate students from nearby schools. The degree to which they’re familiar with platforms, searching, Boolean logic, peer-review, and formats varies. But one thing all the students share is general confusion as to which database they should use for the kind of research they’re conducting.

The database vendors don’t help: Readex? Never heard of it. ProQuest? Sounds vaguely familiar. And the database names—Academic Search Premier, Ulrich’s, Project Muse— are opaque. Yes, some exact titles, like The New York Times or Chicago Defender, can steer the user in a general direction, but without a greater understanding of the kind of content that can be found in each resource, the user is left to fend for his or herself. And that usually means Google. While Google is not an inherently bad choice, especially for initial research queries, many beneficial subscription resources are left unexplored.

Take online reference databases—in the past, a question asked at the information desk often resulted in a librarian directing the user towards the section of the physical reference shelf where one might find sources to help. Today, much of that reference shelf has moved online to platforms like Credo or Gale Virtual Reference Library. The online sources may provide 24/7 access to information, but finding relevant titles is often more difficult.

Theoretically, that’s where discovery platforms like Summon and EBSCO Discovery Service  come in. Discovery platforms search the metadata of nearly all the library’s subscription resources simultaneously so users don’t need to visit each database individually. But they are only helpful if the service your library subscribes to indexes the databases that you need. EBSCO Discovery Service, for example, doesn’t index ProQuest products, and vice versa. Therefore, if you’re using EBSCO for a search on historical newspapers or periodicals, your results will be greatly limited.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that 97% of academic library directors surveyed in the recent Ithaka S+R survey cite teaching informational literacy to undergraduates as an important function of the library. With such limited transparency of online sources, undergraduates clearly need all the help they can get when starting their research.

The Beyond Citation team hopes that researchers—both seasoned and amateur—will shine the light on databases they use regularly by examining the database’s strengths, weaknesses, and the overall range of material. In other words, the content. Because without a better understanding of the troves of rich information discoverable in each database, they’re all just links on a page.

We are at Email us at BeyondCitation [at] gmail [dot] com or follow us on Twitter @beyondcitation as we get ready for the launch in May.


Beyond Citation: Understanding Databases

Every year, more and more research is done by scholars online via academic databases. Print journals, scholarly monographs, newspapers, periodical indexes, and even ephemera and image collections are steadily transitioning from print to electronic.

Historically, research using print collections took place in library reading rooms with material owned by the library. Increasingly, research using electronic collections takes place outside of the library using proprietary digital platforms subscribed to by libraries. This change greatly affects how libraries function — an ownership model morphs into an access model — and how research is done. Database searches are crucial to uncovering information, but little is known about how these searches work. Additionally, it’s not always easy to find what full text content is covered in these database titles.

The goal of Beyond Citation is to help the researcher to better understand how academic databases work, and provide easier access to the database’s holdings information. For the CUNY Digital Praxis Seminar, the Beyond Citation team needed to determine which databases to feature in its initial launch, and what information to gather about each title.

First, we wanted to feature humanities databases and steer away from STEM titles. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.) Second, we ideally wanted to cover titles that were available at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library, and we wanted representation from the big three “e” vendors: EBSCO, Gale, and ProQuest. Additionally, we wanted to cover different kinds of content, including historical newspapers, scholarly journals, and historical e-books from both non-profit and for-profit companies.

After much discussion, the Beyond Citation team has decided to focus on the following databases and collections for its initial launch.

Google Books



ProQuest Historical Newspapers

19th Century U.S. Newspapers (Gale)

Early English Books Online (EEBO) with TCP (Text Creation Partnership) (ProQuest)

Gale Artemis: Primary Sources – Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO).


Project Muse (Johns Hopkins University Press)

Artemis Literature Resources (Gale)

EBSCO Humanities Source

We are open to and eager for feedback from users of these titles, or from any other researchers and librarians who use databases in their research. More to come in future posts on what information we hope to gather from each title, and how that information will be displayed. You can reach us at BeyondCitation [at]

Researcher Beware!

Genevieve asked a great question Monday night: How does one verify the data reflected in mapping platforms?

In his answer, Steve Romalewski stressed that when examining any kind of data, critical thinking is essential. First, look at the metadata to see when the content was updated, look to see where the information came from, who gathered it, what it includes and, by extension, excludes.

Both Genevieve’s question and Steve’s answer underscore the importance of critical thinking and content transparency in the myriad digital tools we use everyday for research. There is often a false sense of security when searching online platforms that the content will be there and that it will be true. And if it’s not there, then it must not exist at all.

To some extent, it might not exist, online anyway. Take, for example, an online full text historical newspaper archive. While the platform may advertise a specific title as being in the full text, it doesn’t necessarily tell you that only select issues are available. The hapless researcher, plugging in keywords and getting nowhere might not be aware of that gap in coverage, and so gets…nothing. If she had known the inclusion dates of that digital archive, she might’ve known that while her online search might yield very little, a spin through a physical microfilm reel might prove enormously fruitful —  albeit a lot more time consuming.

As we increasingly rely on digital tools for research, sometimes to the exclusion of other resources, we must always be aware of the ways the resources are structured and the content they provide. With that knowledge, we’ll have much more manageable expectations of what can be found, how best to approach it for research, or whether someone is better off consulting another full text portal: the physical book.

Knowledge Workers Unite!

In May, 2012, ProQuest, the historical newspaper and scholarly journal database, introduced Udini, “an inventive new research service that provides individuals with access to premium content and cutting edge tools.” The “premium content” they advertised was pulled from select ProQuest databases which previously had only been available through research and academic libraries. According to their press release, Udini offers scholarly content to “knowledge workers without access to research libraries.”

Then in September, 2013, JSTOR, the online academic journal and e-book platform, announced JPASS, a subscription service also geared toward the unaffiliated scholar. For a small fee, you can access a set number of articles in the JSTOR archive. As the JPASS press release suggests, “It’s a great option if you are not able to get ready access through an educational institution or public library.”

Udini and JPASS, combined with increasing number of open access scholarly journal and monograph content, plus the full text titles available in Google Books, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive, has made initial research for the unaffiliated humanities scholar easier than ever before. And if one adds the growing amount of content digitized from specialized libraries, plus access to library subscription databases, a curious mind need only to have an internet connection and a library card to begin her independent studies.

In fact, one could argue that many of the alt-ac career paths that were mentioned and discussed in class on Monday don’t require a PhD at all. Many don’t (or shouldn’t) even require a Masters degree. What many of these alt-ac jobs require are the same skills that many jobs require: clear writing and communication, research skills, organization, interpersonal skills, critical thinking skills, and intellectual curiosity and initiative.

Intellectual curiosity, while perhaps once only satisfied by classroom engagement and course readings, is now easily fulfilled by tools accessible to a large portion of the population. Indeed, syllabi, lectures, and like-minded scholarly communities are all now easy to find outside the academy. In fact, there are many articles and blogs written by non academic scholars and enthusiasts whose writing and research are more aligned with their academic brethren than their publishing platforms may suggest. And much of their work is increasingly intersecting and interacting with traditional academia in interesting and productive ways.

I’m not suggesting that the world of material available to unaffiliated scholars mirrors the deep archival content that can be found in a university or academic library, or that an independent researcher is necessarily the equal to a PhD. But in 2013, there is so much more available to whet one’s curiosity and engage in learning, to participate in communities, and to publish, speak, and collaborate outside of the academy than ever before. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a social scientist, or even a library scientist to do it.


A few weeks ago Matt Kirschenbaum spoke about Len Deighton, the British spy novelist whose Bomber (1970) is considered the first novel written on a word processor. Len Deighton was also a fairly prolific cookbook author. But Deighton didn’t write his cookbooks on a word processor. In fact,  he did quite the opposite: he illustrated most of his recipes in comic strip form. The recipes appeared in a regular column in the London Observer as “cookstrips” and then in several cookbooks throughout the sixties and seventies.   I’m a huge fan of his cookbooks and thought I’d share some of his strips here. Deighton’s cookbooks also demonstrate that while he might’ve embraced technology in some areas of his work, he was open to many forms of literacy and communication.




17th Century London

This post on Londonist about a group of students from De Montfort University creating a “fly through” of 17th century London, seemed very applicable to our class readings for today:

A group of students at De Montfort University created this fly-through of 17th century London…The model focuses on the area around Pudding Lane and the bakery of Thomas Farriner, where the Great Fire of 1666 started.

The students used maps from the British Library, tavern signs, and building details from Samuel Pepys diary to capture life on 17th century London Streets. The class blog documents their work.

Before class: Digital Humanities is an emerging academic field that explores the intersection of traditional humanities research and technology

My knowledge of DH is still so new that many definitions sound correct to me.  I guess I’m less interested in a precise definition of what DH is than in learning what the philosophies and ideologies behind DH tools and projects are.

For example, does Digital Humanities presume OSS ? Can a library database that uses technology to transform humanities research be considered a DH tool even if it comes from a private company? Is curation required to make something DH tool?

Just some thoughts and questions….