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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kristen Mattson

Repeat after me: Academic Databases are the Netflix for Nerds!

Updated: May 27, 2020

As a high school librarian, I know how important it is for my students to navigate and utilize academic databases. Ninety five percent of our students graduate with plans to continue their education, and will be expected to conduct research through their college or university library subscriptions.

Teaching students to navigate the databases is not the hardest part of my job, though. The most difficult part is convincing students that they are worth exploring. Every time I am asked to introduce research strategies and resources to a class, I wrestle with the same questions:

  1. How can I compete with the “I’ll just Google it” mentality that many teens (and adults!) have when approaching a research project?

  2. How can I convince learners that academic databases are a treasure trove of fantastic resources?

  3. How can I help students see how academic databases are DIFFERENT from Google searches?

  4. What will convince students that there are actually MORE results available through the databases than Google could ever bring them?

Like most brilliant “aha moments” I have NO IDEA where this one came from. One day I was preparing to introduce a class of freshman to our academic databases and it dawned on me that I needed a clear metaphor to help students connect the concept of a database to a concept they already knew about. Hence, the “Netflix for Nerds” lesson hook was born.

Now I begin research lessons by asking students to repeat after me, “academic databases are the Netflix for nerds*!” There is usually a bit of chuckling mixed in with confusion and blank stares. So we say it aloud again after I reassure them that I am, in fact, a very proud nerd. By the second or third time we say it as a group, I have their attention and ask them to trust me as I help them see a connection between Netflix and academic databases.

In small groups, I have students brainstorm everything they know about subscription services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. As students chat, I circulate and listen for great ideas I can tease out of the class when we come together as a whole group.


Photo by on Unsplash

After several minutes, the brain storming stops and the whole group instruction begins. I ask volunteers to tell me something they know about Netflix and then promise to show them how it relates to our databases. During the next fifteen minutes, students give me their ideas while I make connections to the databases and model what I am talking about on the big screen.

It usually play out like this:

Student: “You have to pay for Netflix!” 

Me: “Well….someone in your house has to pay for it, but how many of you actually pay the bill?”        **crickets**

“That’s what I thought, and that’s okay! Our academic databases work the SAME way. Just like your parents pay for Netflix and you get to watch it, the library pays for databases and YOU get to use them.”

Student: “It’s organized in categories and you can search it.”

Me: “Our databases are the SAME! Just like Netflix, you can search for a particular title  OR you can browse by categories if you aren’t sure exactly what you are looking for.”

Student: “There’s stuff you can find only on Netflix and stuff you can find other places.”

Me: “Our databases are the SAME! The companies that manage the database get content from lots of places – newspapers, magazines, book publishers, historians, and more. They also develop some of their own content to help researchers understand big ideas around particular topics. These are like the ‘Netflix originals’ “

Student: “You can find different shows on Netflix than you can on Hulu.”

Me: “Our databases are the SAME! Each one that we subscribe to has different content which is why we subscribe to so many.”

Student: “You need a Netflix password.”

Me: “Our databases are the SAME! Because we pay for our databases, we want to make sure that our students are the only ones using them. You will need special passwords to access our databases when you are not at school.”

Student: “Netflix has a lot of variety.”

Me: “Our databases are the SAME! They are not just full of articles. You can find images, video clips, and audio files here too!”

Student: “Netflix lets you make a list to save things you want to watch.”

Me: “Our databases are the SAME! You can connect our databases with your Google account so you can easily save all the cool content you find in order to come back to it later.”

Student: “Netflix has things you cannot find anywhere else.”

Me: “Our databases are the SAME! Just like I cannot do a Google search and watch ‘Stranger Things’ for free on the internet, I cannot read a full book online for free either. But, when the library pays a fee to the database company, we can gain access to that full book — the same way paying your Netflix bills gets you access to ‘Stranger Things’

That last point is the most important to help me drive home my message. I reinforce to students that using a database does not restrict the content that’s available to them…it gives them access to so much more.

I love using the “Netflix for Nerds” analogy with my students. It’s an easy way to help them understand the concept of a database, and when I teach follow up lessons, the class ALWAYS remember how to complete the sentence, “Academic databases are the ……”


Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

*Now, I know what you are thinking. The term “nerd” isn’t exactly flattering, but I love the alliteration and it certainly helps students remember the analogy!

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