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February 12, 2001
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Databases: Library Catalogs v. Indexes v. Full Text

In speaking with Law Library patrons, I've found that many users are confused by what kinds of materials can be located using the library's different types of databases. Using a simple analogy, I'll try to explain the difference between three important types of databases.

What is a Library Catalog?

In my analogy, let's say that I'm a big Beatles fan. In my personal collection, or library, I own a whole bunch of Beatles albums. To help me keep track of all of them, I decide to create database in which I record every album title I own. I now have a catalog of my Beatles albums.

Like other library catalogs, my album database is simply a list of titles owned. MadCat is the UW-Madison library catalog. Think of it as simply a list of books and other materials owned by the campus libraries. To access MadCat, go to

What is an Index?

In surfing the web, I run across a great site that lists each song on dozens of Beatles albums. In this index, I can search by song title or album title. I know that just because a certain song is listed on this site, it doesn't mean that I own this song in my personal library. Nor does it mean that I can hear a recording of the song on this site. It's just telling me that the song exists and where I can find it.

Like other indexes, this Beatles site is a pointer to contents (song titles) within a larger body of material (dozens of Beatles albums). The library provides several such indexes to legal periodicals, such as LegalTrac and Index to Legal Periodicals and Books.

By searching these indexes, you can find citations to articles in many different legal periodicals. As with our Beatles example, just because you find a article citation in an index, doesn't mean that the library owns that periodical or that you can view the article online. It's just informing you that the article exists. To actually get a copy of the article, you must check the MadCat Library Catalog to see if the library owns that periodical. If so, you can go the library to retrieve the periodical.

To see a list of electronic indexes available at the Law Library, see

What is a Full Text Database?

Now imagine that there is a web site out there, like Napster, that contains the full audio tracks for hundreds of Beatles songs. At the click of the mouse, I can hear the entire song through my computer. This site does not, however, contain the full audio for every Beatles song ever made.

A site like this would be considered a full access database, or in the case of text-based information, a full text database. The Law Library subscribes to a number of full text databases that provide access to the complete text of items. But remember, none of these databases contains every item that could be important to your research.

Some of the Law Library's full text databases include Westlaw, Lexis, and To see a list of such full text databases, go to

Written by: Bonnie Shucha
Reference & Electronic Services Librarian

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