Online Facts and Reference

May 2001

Sometimes I bore you with ideas, sometimes I entertain you with fun sites, and this month I offer you a range of useful reference works online--encyclopedias, dictionaries, quotations, handbooks, fact books, and more. I can't believe I haven't already covered some of these sites.

I think I've already mentioned the Encyclopedia Britannica. All 44 million words of this venerable reference work are freely available to you--knowledge that previously would have cost $1,250 in paper-based form or $85 a year for an online subscription.

A search in Britannica.com returns entries in the encyclopedia itself, web sites, magazine articles, and related books. As with most digital encyclopedias, each entry has links to cross-references. Also available is the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.

The Advanced Search menu selection on the main page takes you to an excellent collection of other reference sites, including yellow pages, genealogy, colleges, companies, consumer resources, government documents, statistical data, and world data.

One of the better collections of reference works online is Bartleby. A particularly rich resource is the Columbia Encyclopedia. The new 2001 edition has faster full-text searching and includes an index of over 17,000 biographical entries.

Some of the other major reference works available on Bartleby are the American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, the King James Bible, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Gray's Anatomy, and the World Factbook. You'll also find an array of English handbooks and usage manuals.

You can search the whole site, specific categories such as reference, or specific works such as the Columbia Encyclopedia. In addition to reference works, the site includes classic fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

An adjunct to Bartleby is the Bloomsbury Research Centre, which offers a free online database of reference books, with 17,000 cross-referenced entries. The books in the database include Biographical Quotations, Dictionary of English Literature, Good Word Guide, and Guide to Art. You can search the database by keyword or browse by title.

Microsoft also offers a rich reference site, including a dictionary, encyclopedia, and atlas. There is, however, one annoyance: some of the content in the encyclopedia is free and some requires that you purchase the encyclopedia on CD-ROM before you can access it online for free. And there doesn't seem to be any way to know beforehand which is which. I surmise that the more general content is free and the more specialized content requires that you subscribe. Of the 42,000 articles in Encarta, 17,000 are available for free.

That annoyance aside, this is a useful site. The Microsoft Encarta Dictionary has all the features you'd expect of a good dictionary, plus one: it pronounces the words for you. Lately I used the word "archipelago" in conversation and wasn't sure how to pronounce it. Now I know. And I'd never been quite sure how to pronounce "banal," having heard it pronounced in several different ways. Now I know the most common pronunciation.

I'm also impressed with the world maps. This section is well organized and loads fast. An initial menu lets you choose from eight broad regions. I chose to view a map of Asia. From the resulting map I chose to view a map of Southeast Asia. I like being able to get the big picture and then to keep zooming in to more detail. I then selected The Philippines. The first view you get is the "main" view, which shows an outline of the country and locates the capital. You can also choose the "detailed" view, which is a topographical map that locates all the major cities and other features, such as Mt. Pinatubo. Most of them are clickable links that take you to the entry for that city in the encyclopedia. I like the way these were integrated.

In addition to these reference works, the Internet also offers an extraordinary array of fact books, providing you with just about any statistic or bit of information you could want. Librarian Gary Price from George Washington University has put together an excellent list of these Internet-based tools that give you "fast facts" on a wide range of topics.

The categories are listed alphabetically by topic, from agriculture to zoology. I checked the "Iowa" category and found the Iowa Redbook, the Iowa Official Register put out by the Iowa Secretary of State.

It's filled with links to information on senators, representatives, justices, judges, state agencies, local government, county officials, and stats, as well as to information you might not expect such as the origin and naming of Iowa counties.

© 2001 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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