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What is a Database?

By hrcap, Apr 1 2015 11:47AM

We use databases so much we don't even think about the fact that we are using databases

Does the word database sound technical and forbidding? It shouldn't because we use databases comfortably everyday. In fact, we use them so much we don't even think about the fact that we are using databases.

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During the course of a day we might use a telephone directory, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, an airline flight guide, a bibliography, Wikipedia, or a Yahoo or Google index. In fact, we use databases to store all kinds of knowledge that we retrieve on a regular basis.

What is it? A database is an organised list of facts and information. Databases usually contain text and numbers, and frequently they hold still images, sounds and video or film clips.

What's the difference between a simple list and a database? A database permits its user to extract a specific group of disparate facts from within a collection of facts.

The paper filing system in an office is a kind of database. However, today we're more interested in databases constructed on computers where database management programs help people design and build collections of information.

Lingo: We use the words database and databank interchangeably. We also use the words data, facts and information here as meaning more or less the same thing.

For instance: Here are some examples of ways we use databases:

- Wedding invitation lists, tax expense records and club member names and addresses are some of the kinds of databases kept by individuals on their home computers.

- Office workers tap into databases of budget information and business contacts.

- Businesses maintain databanks of credit information, while government agencies offer databanks of legal citations and technical data.

- Academic researchers reach into scholarly journal databases to build bibliographies for their papers and dissertations.

- Libraries and other research resources provide access to academic databases for use in scholarly projects.

Citations and abstracts: Many databases offer citations and abstracts of journal articles and books. By searching for keywords that might appear in an article or book, a user can retrieve the citation, and often an abstract, of the journal article or book.

Full text: A full-text database incorporates large files of text such as all of the paragraphs from a journal article or all of the chapters of a book. By searching for keywords that might appear in a text, a user can call forth the citation and abstract of a journal article or book. Today, many such databases do not offer the full text for free. Those with full text usually offer the search for citation and abstract for free, but charge for delivery of the full text of an article.

Updating: A typical database is designed around a central set of facts. All databases permit their operators to add new information or to update old facts whenever needed.

Sorting: In an electronic database stored in a computer, the order of information can be rearranged or sorted quickly. To help people retrieve and print facts, computer databases sort lists into reports.

Boolean logic: An electronic database can be searched rapidly for specific items of information. Often, the search commands incorporate Boolean algebra logic so users can use AND, OR or NOT to eliminate unwanted entries.

Expert system: One kind of database, known as an expert system, presents information on a specialized field. For example, a medical information database might gather expertise from physician specialists, as well as specific facts about drugs. The database might then package and deliver the information as a substitute for direct contact with a physician.

Electronic storage: Most academic databases are stored electronically, either on computers serving the Internet or on USB Storage, CD-ROM or DVD discs.

Computer networks: A computer network is formed when many computers are interconnected for the sharing of resources. You might like to think of a network as an information highway over which data is transported.

Recently, networks have changed our idea of what computing is, away from mere number-crunching toward communicating. During the last two decades, networks have spawned a new online industry – a collection of organisations providing information services to remote customers via transmission media spanning counties, countries and the entire globe.

- The Internet is an international conglomeration of hundreds of thousands of government, education, business and private computer networks. It is a vast repository of data for educational institutions, government agencies, mass media, and for-profit and not-for-profit organisations as well as an information-sharing viaduct for thousands of discussion groups with specialized interests. Via the Internet, powerful social media disseminate information through interpersonal interaction using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques.

- The World Wide Web, usually referred to as the Web and sometimes as WWW, is an Internet service that allows computer users to browse or surf global interconnections to download and view information. Web databases of information available for public access are stored on computer servers. A computer owner using a software client or browser – such as the commercial programs Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator and others – can navigate the Internet quickly and easily via hypertext links. Web users jump from one document to another, simply by pointing to an underlined phrase, or link, and clicking.

- Hypertext links on Web pages and in Internet and CD-ROM databases are visual cues inserted into text by a database designer. A link allows a user to jump from one point in a database to another. For example, in a database of magazine articles, an article on sailing in one magazine might include links to an article about the Cape Horn in another magazine.

- Email, or electronic mail, is a form of interpersonal communication in which digital messages are exchanged via the Internet. It's a service of the Internet separate from the Web, although frequently accessed via a Web interface. Email can be used to transmit data files as attachments.

Commercial databases: Many databases are commercial electronic information services that people reach through the Internet. The information packager or reseller is referred to by such names as online database, online service, interactive service, information provider, service provider or content supplier. These online services sell data to their clients and deliver the information through the Internet. The computer storing the seller's information is referred to as a host.

While anyone can download, or electronically copy, information from the Internet, businesses with data for sale see protection of their copyright material as a necessity. To protect their intellectual property, companies sometimes go so far as to encrypt the data they sell via the Internet. To make that information useful, they provide decoding keys to buyers of the data. Of course, that scheme alone doesn't prevent buyers from then repackaging and reselling the data.

Commercial online service operators offer their customers access via the Web. To obtain access from home or office, a researcher navigates the Web to the database's home page. Typically, an authorisation number and password are required to enter a publisher's commercial database.

Academic research libraries subscribe to various electronic databases of use to scholars. Researchers either go to a Web site using a library password or else visit a physical library's USB or CD-ROM database room.

- Is any information freely available? Yes, there are countless research resources offered on the Web with free access for searches and no password required to see the resulting data. Typically, those which are authoritative and authentic are provided by government agencies, think tanks, not-for-profit organisations, large corporations, educational institutions, libraries, museums, etc.

The Internet is not a library: The Internet connects us with a wealth of information on countless topics contributed by people throughout the world. While no one knows for sure how many individual information files reside on the Internet, it could be trillions. The number is growing at a rapid pace.

However, the Internet is NOT a library. Not all available materials are identified. Not all can be retrieved from a single catalog. Many are not authoritative or authentic or scholarly or useful in academic research.

In fact, the Internet is a medium of mass communication – a forum for self-publishing. Anyone with a bit of technical skill and the finances to access a host computer can publish on the Internet.

While some World Wide Web sites demonstrate an expert's knowledge, others are amateur efforts. As with any information resource, it is important to evaluate what you find on the Internet.

Some sites may be updated daily by their owners; others may be way out of date. In addition, the addresses of Web sites can and do change. Information located on the Internet today can disappear tomorrow at the whim of its publisher. Remember that when you locate Web sites of interest to your research.

What is a Database Search?

An online database search is simply bibliographic research which is performed by an individual, scholar, or librarian using a computer and the Internet. By connecting with a database research service, millions of records from thousands of publications in hundreds of databases can be searched for material on a topic.

- An online database search saves time and effort.

- Searching a database is an effective, efficient means of searching for information in ways that may be difficult or impossible to duplicate with printed resources.

- An online database search is a convenient way to produce a bibliography customized to individual research needs for complex topics or topics covering long time periods.

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