Value Added: Getting the Most Out of Databases

Vendors offer a variety of training options and practical tips to ensure librarians and patrons get the most out of their databases.

Vendors offer a variety of training options and practical tips to ensure librarians and patrons get the most out of their databases

Many librarians are already deeply familiar with the research databases their libraries offer, but veteran users can get into habits or use old workarounds that may no longer be necessary. Vendors also regularly add new features to help users refine results or explore a resource’s content in new ways.

There are also useful features that are overlooked or underutilized. For example, “take advantage of the alert services” that databases offer, says Gary Price, founder and editor of LJ’s infoDOCKET and cofounder of the new consultancy infoDJ. “Once you build your searches, you can have the data come to you. And as a librarian, you could also be helping people in your realm create their [own] alerts, have them put in their email, and now you’re pushing data to them that they actually want.” The best alerts, he adds, “are constantly being tweaked to get [the recipient] the best results possible.”


EBSCO ACADEMY features prerecorded and instructor-led courses along with multi-part eLearning “paths”


For new librarians, those that have just subscribed to a new product, or staff just looking for a refresher course on a product’s features, most major vendors offer a variety of training services that offer deep dives into specific resources.

Allyson Zellner, manager, Customer Training Services, U.S., Canada, and English-speaking Caribbean for EBSCO, explains the importance of training, noting that “I firmly believe that if someone doesn’t have a good grasp on what it is that they’ve subscribed to and the value that it adds—and how to properly integrate it so that [end] users are made aware of what it is and why to use it—they won’t get a good return on their investment.”

Launched in October 2020, EBSCO Academy offers live and recorded instructor-led courses, and eLearning “paths” of multi-part courses on topics such as EBSCOhost Research Databases, Full Text Finder, EBSCO eBooks, EBSCO Discovery Service, and more.

It’s “a whole customer learning experience portal.... Any subscriber to EBSCO products can come into EBSCO Connect and ‘choose their own adventure’ of what they want to learn and what pertains to their specific role,” says Zellner. The courses are free to all EBSCO subscribers, and users who sign up with a free account can earn credentials by completing eLearning paths. “We have alternative options as well with public, live training sessions on a regular cadence through Zoom. Those are freely available, too. And then on occasion we do custom one-on-one training for unique needs.”

Simply purchasing a resource “doesn’t mean that it will necessarily get used in a way that’s optimal,” says Megan Sullivan, senior product manager, Gale Primary Sources. So when a library subscribes to a new Gale resource, the company has a dedicated post-sales team “consisting of both trainers and customer success managers,” Sullivan says. The team offers training and onboarding services for librarians, as well as promotional support—including online workshops, webinars, and in-person or front-of-class trainings on request—to help drive awareness and increase usage of the resource among faculty, students, and other end users. And “recently we’ve added support for assisting librarians with subject guide development and assistance with course alignment and faculty research alignment based on the resources they’ve already purchased from us,” says Sullivan.

In addition, Gale offers asynchronous training resources for students and other end users through “learning centers” structured around the Society of American Archivists’ guidelines for primary source literacy and built into many of Gale’s products, notes Rebecca Bowden, product manager, Gale Digital Scholar Lab. “They look to onboard students into the platform—give them a really straightforward, broken down, and easy-to-access route on [to an unfamiliar resource] so that they can troubleshoot and learn, and dip into it whenever they need.”

ProQuest features frequent webinars for librarians, researchers, and students, and the company offers regional training throughout the world, enabling users to schedule training in their native language, notes Marc Cormier, lead product manager, ProQuest Central, General Reference, and ProQuest One Academic. Additional resources include a comprehensive collection of topic- and product-specific LibGuides (at, training slide decks, title lists, user guides, guided tutorials, prerecorded demonstrations, and more. The company also hosts quarterly updates to go over any new features that have been introduced.

“We do also suggest that if there are specific training needs that you have that aren’t met through these routes to get in touch with us directly through the training pages” to schedule training sessions that can be tailored to the specific needs of your institution, Cormier says. ProQuest’s customers are frequently interested in what their peers are doing, so “if I’m doing training myself, I will touch specifically on a project [at a peer institution], how the product supports it, and what the outcome is…. They’re really interested in [use cases], but they’re also interested in what’s new…. They like to anticipate features so that they can roll them into any NavGuides they’re going to create for the coming semester.”

SAGE offers onboarding campaigns to raise awareness among students and faculty, a personalized post-sale consultation process, and course mapping support for pedagogical products, including videos, case studies, book chapters, LibGuides, and more that will be complementary to courses, according to SAGE VP for Product Innovation Martha Sedgwick. In addition, a library engagement team creates self-paced online training resources, as well as topical online sessions throughout the year, including this year’s 2022 SAGE In Session Summer Camp Series: Research Methods for All.


GALE’S LEARNING CENTERS offer training resources for students, researchers, and other end users built directly into many of its products 


Sedgwick notes that the most common “user journey” observed by SAGE is a student or researcher starting a search on the open web with Google or Google Scholar, “landing on an article, or a video, or a book chapter, downloading the PDF or consuming it there, and then leaving and going off platform again. We have been investing in tools to drive great recommendations to more relevant content, but often those can be overlooked.”

One of these tools is SAGE Recommends, a feature that automatically discovers and ranks relevant content from other SAGE resources based on the book chapter, reference entry, case study, dataset, or video page that a user is currently visiting. Separately, there’s the Lean Library browser extension that surfaces library resources within a user’s typical search habits. A free version provides seamless access to more than 30 million open access articles and other resources. Tiered subscriptions with rates based on patron FTE are also available, enabling institutional branding; integration with Google Scholar, PubMed, and other common points of access; interlibrary loan integration; usage dashboards for administrators; integrations with major discovery services, and more.

Gale’s customers frequently ask questions about how searches work—“which operators do we support, what’s the process for our subject indexing, basically a desire for more transparency around how things work on the back end,” Sullivan says. In response to that interest, Gale’s advanced search page was completely redesigned and relaunched in December 2020. “We added what I refer to as ‘contextual scaffolds.’ Essentially, when you change the drop-down index there will be a dynamic label that tells you exactly what we mean by keyword, what it’s searching, and what we mean by an entire document search [for example]. I think advanced researchers benefit from this as well as novice researchers, because all databases from different library vendors tend to work a bit differently.”

Lisa Jones, senior training specialist for EBSCO, also says that trainers often get questions from librarians about how search is working on the back end, and about optimizing search and discovery settings. “The librarians can control that,” Jones says. “If you like our defaults, that’s great, but we want you to understand them. Is this good for your end users? If not, here’s how to change things—something as simple as enabling full-text search as a default [for example]. The user can still change settings on the front end, but let’s optimize it best for what your users are [typically] doing.”

Jones also suggests using the enhanced subject precision setting in EBSCOhost and EBSCO Discovery Service for topical searches, or exploring settings such as ‘search within full-text,’ which “will find a lot of things within resources that typically won’t be found” using a general search, she says. “One tiny check of a box makes all the difference in what comes up on the results list.”

For ProQuest, Cormier says that he often highlights features of the subject guide within ProQuest One Academic. In turn, librarians and faculty often gravitate toward training students to use those features, “because they see the value—especially when it comes to assigning a paper or helping students understand and define a topic,” he says. To encourage users to explore these features, the subject guide, which is currently on the left-hand side of the results, will be moved up to a slightly more visually prominent location in a coming update.

In a demo for LJ, Cormier entered a general search for the term “neurodiversity,” which surfaced more than 9,000 results across all content types in the database. He then opened the subject guide, which displayed a substantial selection of narrower topics ranging from specific neurological disorders, to neurodiversity in the workplace, to pharmaceutical companies that are currently developing neurological drugs. “All vendors have subject guides, but the fact that ours blows up and you can include or exclude any of those terms means that it’s like kicking off a whole new universe of search when you select or deselect any of those options,” Cormier says. “It’s really quite powerful.”

Similarly, Cormier encourages users to search within relevant full-text ebooks that are surfaced during more general searches. Continuing the demo within an ebook, Cormier explains, “I want to find out where neurodiversity is discussed, but also, are there other things that I could find that would be more useful or interesting in order to write a paper.... If I’m interested in...autism, I could search within this book.... It’s a great way of having a browse feature built within a multidisciplinary, multi-content database. I think a lot of times students, faculty, and librarians just assume ‘well, it’s a periodicals database. I’m going to get a big set of results and have to refine from there.’”

Gale has added new features to Gale Primary Sources (GPS) “that apply broadly to some problems that digital humanities researchers run into,” Sullivan says. “The first is the ability to browse an archival collection in its original order. Previously, “our platform essentially relied on users knowing what they were looking for” in an archival collection. “So, in the past, users have relied on knowing the specific shelfmark number and knowing how to search for it in advanced search to pull up what they’re looking for. But in the past year or two, we’ve started to roll out a new browse feature that lays out for users exactly what’s available in a given source library collection.” Sullivan says that awareness of the new feature is still relatively low.

All of these examples of new or underutilized features suggest that periodically taking advantage of training opportunities, even on regularly used resources, can be beneficial. “If you can take a little bit of time now to learn what these databases can do and how to do it…in the long run, you’re going to be saving yourself a lot of time,” says Price. 

Open Web

Price has long advocated the use and promotion of open web research tools, and the “free tools” section of his consultancy’s new website,, offers visitors links to a curated, annotated, and tagged collection of almost 400 open web resources, ranging from the Retraction Watch Database covering retractions of scientific papers, to Connect K–12’s collection of E-rate data, to the artist-song lookup service MusicBrainz. Price describes them as “resources of quality that you don’t have to take out your credit card to get access to—a virtual reference shelf.”

Price suggests several open web resources similar to Google Scholar for researching academic material. There’s , a free AI-powered search and discovery tool based at the Allen Institute for AI that currently indexes more than 203 million scientific papers. “No one resource is perfect, but even if you think Google Scholar is, I would argue that this is just as good, and in some situations, better,” Price says.

There’s also,a resource free to individual researchers and non-profit organizations that “ingests, cleans, aggregates, normalizes and serves over 225+ million scholarly works, 127+ million global patent records, and more than 370+ million patent sequences,” according to the site. “There’s all sorts of advanced searching that you can do here that most open web search tools don’t allow,” Price notes.

And there is, which bills itself as “the world’s largest collection of open access research papers,” enabling search of more than 207 million OA papers, or the Internet Archive’s, currently in beta, which includes “over 25 million research articles and other scholarly documents preserved in the Internet Archive. The collection spans from digitized copies of eighteenth-century journals through the latest Open Access conference proceedings and pre-prints crawled from the World Wide Web,” according to the site. “It gets better all the time,” Price says of the resource. “And these are all full-text papers right away.”

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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