Research – getting less common material

Once you start learning about specific subjects (especially more obscure ones), you’re probably going to hit a point where free online resources and what’s in your local public library just aren’t enough.

This article talks about some other options, including databases, interlibrary loan, accessing academic or other specialised libraries, and some legal online sources for learning more about a book.

Learning: quill on a green background

Databases and academic journals:

Databases, in the library sense, are collections of articles. Some databases focus on academic journals, others collect magazine articles, newspaper articles, dissertations, or other materials.

An academic journal, roughly, refers to a journal that collects articles that includes some degree of peer review process, and is focused on academic conversation about a particular topic or field.

Libraries subscribe to databases depending on their needs, their budgets, and some other factors. Some states negotiate contracts for all libraries in their state, other states, it’s every library or library system for themselves. (Most commonly, the state has a couple of general databases it provides, and libraries add to that list in various ways.)

Database access is very expensive for most libraries, and libraries are constantly making decisions about whether they continue a particular subscription. (In many libraries, database and electronic access accounts for more than 60% of the library’s materials budget these days.)

Many times, a license for a database will cost a lot more the more people who use it, so many libraries (especially academic ones) may limit some access only to people who are members of their institution (students, faculty, or staff), or who are physically in the library. However, if you do have remote access, it’s amazingly wonderful to be able to do research at 11pm at home and access all sorts of fascinating things to read.

The quality of what’s in a given database also varies a lot. There are scam and vanity academic journals out there, and academic articles can vary a lot in perspective, quality, and rigor of research, for a variety of reasons. My article on how academic publishing works has a lot more detail on this.

To get started:

Investigate the website for libraries you have access to. Usually databases will be listed under ‘electronic resources’, ‘databases’, or some similar term. See the section of this essay below about accessing academic library resources for more ideas.

Google Scholar also allows access to some academic articles – however the quality and peer review quality and so on vary a great deal. Some people also post articles on or allow you to request them. (Note that these may not be peer reviewed, may be drafts, or may be older, due to agreements with the publishing journals.)

Some databases also allow for limited access by researchers not associated with an academic institution. For example, JSTOR, a major database for humanities research, offers a free Register and Read option that will allow you to read up to read a smaller number of articles and also offers a subscription option for about $20 a month (with a discount for a yearly subscription.)

Check with your library about available resources, though – for example, in Massachusetts, most people who live, work, go to school, or own property in the state can get an electronic library card for the Boston Public Library that includes a numer of databases.

Interlibrary loan:

This is the term libraries use for getting materials from outside their own library network. There are some limits on how it works, but when you just need a book relatively briefly, or a specific article, it can be amazingly wonderful.

Here’s how it works:

  • The patron makes a request
  • The library they use sends that request to be filled (sometimes this is directly to a library that has it, but these days, it’s more common to have a state-level organization that helps coordinate this.)
  • Another library agrees to fill the request.
  • They find the item, and scan and email it (if it’s an article or something else short) or mail it (if it’s a book)
  • The patron’s library gets it, and tells the patron that it’s available or emails it.
  • The patron can then come and get it.

Loan terms for books can be quite different from your usual library, because they’re set by the lending library. In many places, you can’t renew ILL books, in others, there’s a small fee (usually a couple of dollars a book, if they do this) to help cover mailing expenses. Some kinds of materials (recent items still in high demand, or sometimes DVDs and other media) may not be available, or you may only be able to make a few requests at a time. Ask your friendly local librarian how it works in your library system.

(Oh, yes. Books from within your own library system are usually much easier: often you just put in a request, and there’s a regular truck that goes around to different libraries on a standard route, and you get your book or whatever in a few days. If you live in a metro area, and can get access to a major library system, you’ll be able to do a lot of things in system.)

To get started:

Check out your library’s policies about interlibrary loan. Often it will be on the website under services or circulation or reference, but you can also ask at the library. They can tell you how to make requests, how the system works in your library, and much more.

Access to unexpected libraries

A number of academic libraries do allow some kinds of access by people who are not formally associated with the institution.

Public universities often allow access on site to resources by residents of the state (since the state pays for the university). Other schools may allow access to residents of the town or immediate area, to alumni, or to people who pay a moderate fee ($25-100 is a range I’ve seen) to be a friend of the library for a year.

Another common option is to take an extension or single course at a given campus – often this will give you access to the libraries and other resources, or allow you to get greater access with an additional fee.

Subscription or membership libraries are another option (and may be worth it even if you’re not near one!). Membership libraries were more common before the rise of the public library, and they are funded by individual subscriptions. While many of the US libraries focus more heavily on American history than other topics, they can still be great resources.

Through work, I have a membership to the Boston Athenaeum. Until a few years ago, it was much harder to get a membership (you had to have current members who would vouch for you), but they’ve loosened the requirements since then, and do provide remote access to a number of journals including JSTOR. It’s also a gorgeous building, and I sometimes go in there when I want to devote a day to writing. They also bring in interesting speakers. If you’re near enough one to make occasional trips, it’s worth checking out and seeing if it’s of interest to you.

Check out books before you buy:

Buying books is often an option (if the book is available) but it can be a very expensive one. If the options above don’t work for you, you can try some useful tricks to check out a book (or see if you can read the couple of pages you specifically want) without buying the whole thing.

Amazon’s Look Inside feature obviously only works with books where there’s a digital option (so it won’t be an option for older books unless there’s a new edition) but it can let you browse, see the table of contents, maybe the index. You can also try searching for a particular name or phrase and seeing the results. To try this out, take a look for the book you’re interested in on Amazon, and see if Look Inside is an option.

Google Books offers a similar option, but for a much wider range of books, since it includes books digitised through various initiatives. You often can’t read the whole book, and it may skip  critical pages, but again, if you try a search on a particular phrase or name, you may be able to piece together enough to figure out if it’s worth tracking the book down.

Title card: Getting less common research material.

Last edited December 25, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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