Search engines, like Google, Ask, or Bing index the Internet and use proprietary programs to match results to the user’s search terms. Search engines are free to anyone with computer access. Any person or group can produce a website and say anything they want, truthful or not. The CRAP test (Currency, Reliability, Authority, and Purpose) must be applied to information retrieved from an Internet search engine. Search engines also retrieve more information than we can use and it is not organized. There is no quality control mechanism on the Internet; consequently, learning how to judge information on the Internet is an essential literacy skill.
Search engines are best for non-academic and general searches. Good stuff can be found on the Internet: current information, newspapers, pictures & images, statistics & government documents, pop culture, general reference information, products, services, or entertainment. Using search engines is a good way to start a project or get a main idea or a general topic.
Databases are purchased or subscribed to by libraries or schools. Information found in databases passes the CRAP test: it is current, reliable, authoritative, and the purpose is usually educational. Information found in databases is reviewed by scholars, researchers, or professors. Databases are usually targeted to a particular audience. There are databases for elementary school students, for scientists, for health & wellness, or family history researchers.
Library databases are most appropriate for academic research. Students can use databases to find resources for school papers, book reports, or school projects. Academic researchers use databases to find research papers, scholarly information, conference reports, or peer reviewed articles from academic journals. Database results are usually cited and are more manageable. Information retrieved in a database search will often give opposing viewpoints and link to additional resources.
Search engines and databases are tools. Choose the right tool for the task. It is not a question of exclusively using one or the other for your information needs. Both have value for finding information, depending on what type of information you are seeking.
“The first time I walked into a library, I got so excited I almost wet my pants.” – Roy Blount Jr. (author)