Computers in Libraries, v.37 iss. 5, June 2017
Twenty Critical, Authoritative, and FREE Electronic Databases
by Jeffrey Meyer

Online searching provides opportunities and challenges. How reliable is an online source? Where can I find authoritative information amid the millions of search results?

Fortunately, many authoritative institutions have made their wellsprings of data freely available to the online searcher. Many of these databases are provided by public institutions, meaning that there is no entrance fee or subscription required to access their treasures. These free, online resources are important tools for the librarian’s kit, giving professionals fast answers from good sources. Librarians don’t need to wade through the millions of jumbled, anonymous, Wiki-style answers provided by online search engines. Speed and authority are often of the essence in reference work, and these 20
databases give librarians fast and authoritative answers for a wide range of topics. The following resources amount to a free electronic reference shelf. They have been grouped into topical subjects.

1. American FactFinder, U.S. Census Bureau
How many people live in Ohio? What is the population of Buffalo, N.Y.? What percentage of the population is elderly? What is the median household income in St. Louis? All of these questions and more are easily answered with American FactFinder’s excellent searchable database of every town, city, county, and state in the U.S. FactFinder is a very useful source for official reports, homework, and grant writing.

2. The World Factbook, CIA
The CIA has compiled a veritable encyclopedia of world geography. While the U.S. Census Bureau focuses on demographics within the U.S., the CIA casts an international net. The World Factbook can provide quick answers to many questions about the nations of the world. How many people live in Ireland? What percentage of Canada’s energy consumption comes from renewable resources? How do China’s defense expenditures compare to those of the U.S.? Obtaining substantial population, economic, and historical data about any nation is just a click away with The World

3. UNESCO Institute for Statistics
UNESCO allows users to compare important datasets among various nations and regions. Users can choose an important issue, such as comparing literacy rates between wealthy and developing nations, and instantly compile charts and graphs with
this data. UNESCO has collected data on each nation, detailing the availability their populations have to education, science, and culture. UNESCO also provides downloadable PDFs of official reports on these important issues.

4. Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida’s Natural History Collections
The Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida have created databases of the natural and social sciences. The collections include topics as broad as archaeology, ethnography, the natural sciences, and paleontology. The databases are broken down further into many different subfields, including historical archaeology, botany, and invertebrate paleontology. The subject databases allow for targeted searching, all of which leads to image galleries or specimen descriptions. For instance, students and researchers can use the historical archaeology ceramics database to
search for examples of stoneware recovered from archaeological sites.

5. Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Macaulay Library at Cornell University has compiled a substantial collection of images, audio, and video of birds. As of February 2017, a search for “blue jay” in the database brings up 5,494 images, 386 bird recordings, and 71 videos. Users can easily filter the search results by simply clicking on an icon for photographs, sound recordings, or video recordings. The database allows you to narrow the fields by location (Ohio) and season (August–November). These wildlife images, audio files, and video recordings are captioned, providing the date, place, and contributor name.

6. NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day
Jupiter. Colliding galaxies. Neutron stars. The Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) database is a great resource for captioned cosmic images. Not only are visitors greeted with a different high-quality image each day, but they can also browse a topical index to find specific images or use a search box to find images. Every picture has an information-rich caption that includes links for further information on important
astronomy and physics concepts.

Read more of Jeffrey Meyer’s article.

Jeffrey Meyer( is the director of the Mount Pleasant Public Library in Iowa. He gained an appreciation for data, graphs, and maps in graduate school, where he studied archaeology.