As you work through your time in library school you are going to become intimately familiar with many different databases. You will know the ins and out of those hosted through EBSCO and those through Proquest, and likely develop very strong opinions about which platform is superior (EBSCO all day, and if you disagree I am sorry but you are wrong). You will likely also deal with some obscure subject specific ones related to research areas you are involved in or support. But, I am not here to write about a bunch of databases you will end up knowing well. No, I am here to write about a couple of databases you will likely never lay your eyes on. Which really is too bad because these databases have some of the coolest and most unique features of any research databases, and are great examples of what we should be pushing all of our databases to become. You may be asking yourself right now, why, if these databases really are so great, is this writer so sure I will never come upon these databases? That is of course a fair question, but I have a fair answer: because these databases are about, duh duh duh, mathematics.

Now if you just became very angry with me because of course you regularly access mathematical databases I am very sorry for stereotyping you, it was unfair of me. I do not have the data to back up my assumption that most librarians and library students do not spend their time playing around with mathematical databases. I do however have experience of mentioning these databases regularly in conversations and being treated with blank stares. Combine that with only two thirds of the most likely group of librarians to care about mathematical databases, science librarians, having a background in science, and a small percentage of them having a background in mathematics, and you can come to see why I assume a librarian who is not currently supporting mathematics is unlikely to have gazed upon these databases.

That is assuredly enough preamble though, time to get to the good stuff. To the databases!

The two major mathematics databases are MathSciNet and zbMath. Both of these databases had a previous existence in a print form. MathSciNet was originally founded as Mathematical Reviews in 1940 and zbMath started in 1931 under the name Zentralblatt für Mathematik und ihre Grenzgebiete. They are both very similar in scope and content, likely because they were both created by the same person, Otto E. Neugebauer, and because they are direct competitors so when one of them comes up with something awesome the other has to match it.

As a librarian the first thing you would likely notice about these databases is they do not simply index and abstract, they actually review many of the publications. I mean that literally. When a publication comes in to MathSciNet or zbMath it is sent out to a mathematician who in an expert in the area and they write a review which can range from a more in-depth summary than a traditional abstract to comments on the work itself to other works related to the publication. Of course not every review is that in-depth and it is not uncommon for the databases to rely on abstracts, but even in the cases where this is done the decision was not made until an editor or reviewer examined the paper and determined the abstract was sufficient.

Think about this for a second. Take whatever your personal favorite area of study is and imagine a database where you can feel secure that the abstracts you are reading properly summarize the work in a publication, and where they do not someone has already written a review you can read which does. Sounds dreamy, does it not?

Reviews are not the only thing setting MathSciNet and zbMath apart from other databases. Both of them have worked very hard to uniquely identify authors, to the point where they have author profile pages which list publications, frequent co-authors, and research areas. Authors can also claim these profiles and add links to things like a personal website or your ORCID iD record as well as confirm or exclude publications listed as being written by the author.

You may argue that it is becoming par for the course for databases to do the work of disambiguating authors so they are unique within a database, but how many of them have gone back historically and done it for the majority of the authors in the database? Both zbMath and MathSciNet have. Plus, this all has a really cool side effect. They allow for you to find the collaboration distance between any two authors in the database. This is really important for mathematicians, who at all times are required to know their current Erdös number.

If publication reviews and author profiles are not enough to convince you to go play around with mathematical databases, let me tell you about Mathematical Subject Classification. MSC as it is more commonly known, is a hierarchical taxonomy designed, and revised ever 10 years (I interviewed one of the people doing the current revision for the podcast Relatively Prime), by zbMath and MathSciNet to classify mathematical publications. Every MSC code can be broken down into three parts covering the general area of mathematics a paper is about, the sub-area the research is in, and the specific research area. For example let us look at the MSC code 05C78 (This is the code for the only paper I have ever published). The first two digits 05 represents ‘Combinatorics’, the general area of mathematics I was researching. The letter C represents the sub-area of ‘Graph theory’ I focused on. Then the final two numbers 78 represent my specific research area: ‘Graph labelling’.

The MSC also has hyphen classifications, which have a a hyphen instead of a letter in the third position, and they are usually used to specify non-paper formats such as reference work, instructional exposition, or conference proceeding and the taxonomy also includes see also codes for related areas. Now databases using in-depth taxonomies and controlled vocabularies is not unique or special, but how MSC codes are assigned is. Instead of relying on authors to properly classify their own publications, the reviewers and editors, both of whom are subject area experts in the area of mathematics a paper covers, have final say in the MSC code a publication receives. So, just like with the reviews, you can feel secure in the classifications you see when you search these databases.Hopefully I have convinced you to spend some time playing around with these two wonderful mathematical databases. You may not be interested in the content of the papers, but there is still plenty in both of interest to those who are librarianly inclined. At the very least I hope I have convinced you to look outside of your subject to the databases and information classification methods being used by other areas. You may never need to search them as a part of your job, but knowing how other groups are dealing with information storage, search, and retrieval can only help you realize what is possible. Well, it might also make you a tiny bit jealous too.

As a bonus here is my interview with Fabian Müller of zbMath about Mathematics Subject Classification and its upcoming revision

Categories: Education & Curriculum, Reviews, Specializations, tools