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Searching for Quick Answers To Odd Questions

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Looking for an obscure fact, and need the answer right now? Forget search engines: Specialized search tools can help you track down offbeat information in a flash.

Search engines are great, but they often obscure simple, direct answers to straightforward questions in a sea of other information. For example, what was the original title of the first Godzilla movie? (Gojira, released in 1954) Who said "I'm as pure as the driven slush?" (Tallulah Bankhead) What percentage of adults have gone to a jazz performance in the last year? (11%).

Here are a few of my favorite sites for finding answers to those there-must-be-an-answer-out-there questions.

For the electronic equivalent to the "ready reference" shelf of resources that most librarians keep hidden behind their desks, check out RefDesk. It is particularly good for answering factual questions—Where do I get the new Windows XP Service Pack? Where is the 386 area code? How do I contact my member of Congress?

Another resource for lots of those quick-fact questions is InfoPlease, the publishers of the Information Please almanac. Right now, it's full of Olympics data, but it also has links to facts and factoids that you would look up in an almanac, atlas, or encyclopedia.

If you want numbers, start with the Statistical Abstract of the US. This source, produced by the U.S. Census Bureau, gives you everything from the divorce rate by state to airline cost indexes going back to 1980. It's a virtual "secret weapon" for pulling numbers together quickly.

My favorite question is "how does that work?" Haven't you ever wondered how they get that Olympic torch to continue to burn while it is being carried by runners from one city to the next? Or how solar sails manage to propel a spacecraft? For answers, check out the appropriately-named How Stuff Works.

For questions about movies, my first resource is the Internet Movie Database. It is easy to search, is such a popular site that mistakes are corrected quickly, and is a fun place to catch trailers of both upcoming movies and those dating back to the 30s.

When I need to figure out who said what, I still tend to rely on the print sources such as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. No, the current edition is not available on the web, but I really appreciate the fact that I not only get the attribution but I also see the source of the quote. There are far too many quotes being attributed to a celebrity, but with no indication of the source where the quote originally appeared.

Take, for example, the much-cited quote of Margaret Meade, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has!" Then see the page on the Institute for Intercultural Studies site, founded by Meade, and read its statement that it has never been able to verify this alleged quote from Meade.

While there are lots of web-based sources of quotes (see QuotationsPage.com and Bartleby, for example), unless the site provides the original source for the quotation, I wouldn't rely on the citation.

Of course, if you have a hunch as to the source of a quote, and it was published prior to 1923, head over to Project Gutenberg, which includes the full text of over 12,000 books that are in the public domain. When I needed to confirm a quotation of the Red Queen in "Through the Looking Glass," this is where I started.

And if you are stumped as to where to go to find information, instead of Googling it, try the Librarians' Index to the Internet. While it is somewhat US-centric, it is a great directory of web resources.

Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services, a research and consulting business based in Boulder, Colorado.

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