A Guide to Databases for Social Scientists

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There are databases today which make the older social scientist wonder how anything was ever done.  The student, teacher, and writer can now go online and find access to data, journal articles and databases that was never so readily available in its many forms, let alone in the comprehensiveness of data collection.

One concept of online database searches is important to know. There is the "shallow web" and there is the "deep web". In the shallow web, a relatively small proportion of existing on line data is stored. The vast majority of data is in the "deep web", which is accessible only through help from savvy librarians, access to paid databases, or is inaccessible to all but those who are allowed special access.

In accessing information from any part of the web, the social scientist is helped immensely by librarians who know how to find and to retrieve information. Public and school libraries offer access to fee based and other databases that may have much better data than the average individual can afford or know of.

Some university databases are "deep web" and may be restricted to those who are students, alumni, who pay fees, or who visit through inter-university programs. Other databases and worldwide library interconnections are through collaborations that only librarians or public libraries can access. The social scientist who is not currently a student, member of alumni associations, teacher or otherwise affiliated with the university may need to explore ways of either obtaining membership and access or of learning from the librarian!

Some databases offer built-in statistical analysis programs, such as SAS, and database calculation, extraction, search, presentation and other tools.

Another concept is the aggregator concept, where many sites collect links to a variety of popular internet sites. There are news aggregators and there are data aggregators, for example.

The abstracting and indexing services of ancient times thus have an online equivalent: data aggregators, but the savvy social scientist must also learn to used advanced search features, boolean search logic, the best search engines possible, and other techniques to improve their search acumen.

Even the most well organized real world library still requires an ability to develop search logic and skill that retrieves the most fruitful results. Spending time with the major online search engines and evaluating the results that come from a search on the same topic will help to determine which is the better option.

Two data aggregators are the Social Science Data Archives, and Questiawhich are site aggregators that have links to hundreds of journals and databases from all over the world. Many of these may be restricted, or "deep web" resources that require fees or membership in institutions. Questia is "deep web" or requires a fee subscription for the service. Questia offers research tools that allow bibliographies and other working tools. Other aggregators are government or open databases that offer extensive collections of links to other sites.

The US Census Bureau has several data access tools, including interactive search tools and downloadable software for using data from its massive database. The US Census Bureau is also an international database connection to information from over 200 countries.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (!) has a World Factbook with data on over 266 countries.

Govtrack is a portal to everything that involves US Congressional action. This portal has tools for tracking everything from legislation to events. A social scientist who needs help in navigating the maze of legislative process will find the tools and ease of finding information very useful.

As a result of the multitude of social science interests finding caches, databases, and aggregators,  make it worth taking the time to find the resources that work for the particular area of study. It is possible to create customized and personal "aggregators" through the use of rss feeds, bookmarks and other tools for collecting and managing online links and sites that shows promise as sources of research material and databases.

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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