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Accessing Subscription-Based Electronic Resources

Module by: David Getman, Paula Sanders. E-mail the authors

Summary: Electronic resources such as databases, indexes and journals can be crucial for research projects, but many require a subscription. Your library may be a subscriber--and may provide you with a way to access the resource from your own home or office. This module, part of a course on doing historical research, discusses how to access such resources while outside the the library building, highlighting how to use a proxy server and Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Introduction

Many online research sources, such as indexes, databases, and journals, are available only through subscription. Each year libraries pay significant fees to bring these resources to their patrons. To use fee-based online resources, users must be validated as belonging to an institution that has purchased a license. Vendors often restrict access to resources by IP (Internet Protocol) address, the address for your institution's network. If your institution has paid for a subscription to an electronic journal, database, or index, there are several ways that you can potentially access it. You can:

  • Use the electronic resource at the library.
  • Gain access from an office, dorm room, or other room on campus, provided that you are connected to the campus network. You can use either a wireless or a hard wired connection.
  • Access the resource from off campus via a proxy server
  • Connect to the resource from off campus via a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

Many people prefer to do their research from home rather than having to go into the library. Most universities provide a way for students, faculty and staff to access resources from off-campus; some public libraries, such as the Minneapolis Public Library, also provide access to electronic resources from outside the library building. In this module, we will focus on accessing electronic resources through VPN or a proxy server. For purposes of demonstration, we will discuss how everything works at Rice University, but a similar process will apply at most other institutions. Check with your institution's library and information technology department to get the specifics.

Accessing Online Resources Through a Proxy Server

A proxy server allows people to access restricted online resources from outside their campus or work network. As the word "proxy" suggests, a proxy server is a piece of software that goes between your computer and a web server. It verifies that you are a member of your institution and thus entitled to use web-based licensed resources from off-campus by requiring you to enter a username and password.

In order to use the proxy server, you will need to configure your web browser so that it points to the proper server in the proxy settings. Like many other universities, Rice gives detailed instructions for configuring the proxy server. Each browser (such as Firefox and Internet Explorer) requires a slightly different configuration process, but once you get everything set up you typically do not have to configure the browser again. For example, to set up Internet Explorer to work for Rice users, you would use the following process (replacing the address for Rice's proxy server with that of your own institution):

Figure 1: Configuring the proxy server for Internet Explorer
Figure 1 (acc6.bmp)
Once this process is complete you should be able to access most of the online resources available through the network. (A complete list of resources available through the proxy server at Rice is available at http://proxy.rice.edu). Once you have logged in, typically you can access resources via the proxy server for up to two hours; if you lose your connection, just re-enter your user name and password.

Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

Whereas the proxy server provides access to restricted Web resources by verifying your identity through your login and password, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) establishes a secure connection to your campus network. With VPN, you can not only access web sites, but also transfer files, run programs, and so forth. Although a VPN may be slower than the proxy server, many libraries recommend this secure, flexible approach over the proxy server. Often more resources are available through VPN than through the proxy server, and you may have more flexibility in working with them. Using VPN requires that you install special software on your computer and set up an account through your institution's Information Technology group. See, for example, the description of how the VPN works at Rice.

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