Online public libraries: information gold mine at your fingertips

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Have you visited your local library lately? Better yet, have you visited its website? A startling array of resources may now be available online, including broad databases of publications, electronic books that can be checked out, and reference librarians who can be queried – all from the comfort of your home PC.

At least that's the case with my local St. Louis County Library. The library has been adding resources to its website over the past decade, starting with its catalog of books. That alone is a great service – I can see what books are available, or order them from other branches, before I make the trek.

But powerful and little-known resources are in the library's online databases, including some that can cost hundreds of dollars a year to access on your own. They include Factiva, ProQuest, and InfoTrac, which have full-text articles from thousands of newspapers, magazines, and journals. In many cases, stories can be fetched from as far back as the early 1980s.

These are resources that reporters have tapped for years through our media employers.

Now anybody with a library card can access them for research or browsing. They sometimes come with added limits on how the information can be used – many don't allow reprinting or even excerpting for commercial purposes. Also, library users can't customize the services like they can when they have a personal subscription. And Factiva, for one, kicks me off after just a moment or two of idle time, much quicker than when I access the service through a paid account.

Much research can be done free these days on the Web. But rarely does that include access to publications' archives, for which they usually charge. So think of your library's databases as a professional researcher's Google, and one that's still free.