Help! What happened to my database?!


It’s the start of a new year. You’re back at university and ready to get on with your research. Perhaps you’re entering your final year and are thinking about your dissertation, or maybe you’re embarking on postgraduate study. You login to OpenAthens, find your most useful databases, and they all look different. Sound familiar?

Every year, usually during the summer months, many electronic databases undergo at times quite dramatic changes. It’s not simply a question of a different font here or there, but there are often radical changes to interfaces that include changes to functionality and features too. So why does this happen, and what can we do if what we are presented with simply will not do?

Not so long ago, there wasn’t the access to electronic information for acacemic work that there is now. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1990s there was almost nothing; indeed we barely used e-mail and handwrote essays. Much of this was to do with my subject area (music), but there really wasn’t a lot out there. As a postgraduate, I was introduced to the world of the CD-ROM and a few Internet resources, and marvelled at the new search engine that was doing the rounds (Google, of course). It wasn’t until I studied librarianship that I really got to grips with electronic resources, a completely new and fantastic world. Beloved periodical indexes and card catalogues were cast aside. However, since then, and that really wasn’t all that long ago, the information landscape has changed beyond all recognition, and slowly, those simple yet functional databases “of old” have started to look at bit dated.

Of course, it’s not all about looks, but functionality – and expectations of functionality – change all the time. Google has it down to a fine art: a simple interface, easy searching, fast information retrieval speeds. Electronic resource suppliers have also noticed this too, and the single search box and clean, uncluttered pages seem to be influencing resource design. ProQuest, for example, states that the Google search has been major influence in the design of its new platform. We want to be able to access information quickly and easily, and this a major issue. Platforms are changed for all sorts of reasons – sometimes there may be hardware or software issues – but more often than not it’s an attempt to match the look and feel of so many of the websites that have become part of our every day lives. Resource providers want is to search easily, they want us to “like” pages or tweet about them, and as a result, feel the need to change what we are familiar with.

Sounds good, doesn’t it. A database that’s quick and easy. But sometimes, changing something can cause huge problems for librarians and users alike. We are often faced with authentication that doens’t work, links that need changing and massive amounts of user education to ensure that everyone knows about the changes. And sometimes, there are features that we just do not like. For example, Database A’s theme is green. It’s always been green, and we can tell what we have access to by a prominent green box. The developers look around, and realise that all the popular social networking sites (and you know what they are) seem to be blue-ish. Suddenly, Database A is changed to blue, and the green box becomes a blue star. No-one knows what the blue star means, so users leave the site, confused and angry that they can’t get their research.

So what can we do? We take feedback on new database interfaces very seriously and report everything to our providers, so if there is something about a database that you do not like or makes or sense, please do tell us. The Electronic Resources Librarian has worked with suppliers in the past to get the products right, so please do get in touch. The suppliers really do care about your experiences and expectations, but they need your help to get it right.


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