The Digital Library: Online Databases and Reference Software
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These programs let you store bibliographic information about the journal articles and books you're reading. Not only can you store this information in the programs, but you can also use the software to reformat your lists of books and articles. Different disciplines use different formatting standards (the social sciences, for example, use APA style, and the humanities use a style called MLA). What this means is that even if you use the same book in your English paper and your anthropology paper, you'll have to list the author, title, publisher, and publication date in a different order and style for each paper. If you type your bibliography by hand for each paper, this gets really tiring really fast. If you use reference management software to keep track of the articles and books you read, the process takes no time at all.
Reference management software is also called bibliographic management software. There are both commercial and free versions of this kind of software. The most popular commercial versions are programs called RefWorks and EndNote. They can be quite expensive, but many universities offer free versions to students. There are also dozens of free reference management programs out there, but quality can vary. A program called Zotero is one of the most popular free reference management programs.
Again, chances are your professor and teaching assistant use some of these programs themselves, so ask for their recommendations. If you're not used to the software, it can take a few hours to learn to use, but it's time well spent. These programs can save you hours and hours of time during your career as a student.
The existence of online databases and reference management software doesn't mean that you'll go through your career as a non-traditional student never opening a paper book or writing with a pen and notepad! Real books on real bookshelves are still a key part of any good university library, and one of the joys of being a student again is spending a few hours wandering through a good university library. But card catalogues are, for better or for worse, a thing of the past. If you know how to use these new technologies, you'll be able to learn more in less time and make the most of your return to academic life.
Annamarie Ruelle lives in Vancouver, Canada. She's a graduate student in the social sciences and has worked as a teaching assistant for undergraduate courses.
See also See You Online! and Information Literacy: Library Research for the Technically Savvy.
(Editor's Note: More academic tools can be found in the Cool Tools section.)