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The Best Online Reference Sites

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Looking for an answer to a specific question? Check out this list of the best reference sites of 2004, as compiled by the American Library Association.

The list is compiled by MARS, the Machine-Assisted Reference Section of the American Library Association. To be eligible for consideration, sites must meet a number of criteria, including:

  • Access is free or predominantly free
  • The site must be very high quality, featuring both significant depth and usefulness of content
  • The site should be primarily a ready reference resource, focusing on answers specific questions.

A full list of criteria is available here.

What kinds of sites are featured? The range of subjects is both wide and eclectic. This isn't a comprehensive or exhaustive list of online reference sites, by any means. Rather it's a choice selection of sites that will appeal to a wide range of searcher interests.

Some of the more interesting sites chosen include:

AskOxford.com, providing searchable access to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary and many other helpful resources for writers and students.

Cyberschoolbus, from the United Nations Statistics Division, which produces high quality teaching materials and activities designed for educational use, both for kids and for training teachers.

Epicurious, the terrific food meta-site offering tons of cooking, nutrition and other resources, including excellent recipes, cookbook reviews, wine information and much more.

The Household Products Database, with information on more than 4,000 consumer brands, including health effects from Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) provided by manufacturers.

The New York Public Library Picture Collection, a collection of 30,000 digitized images from books, magazines and newspapers as well as original photographs, prints and postcards, mostly created before 1923.

And an old favorite of mine, the University of Michigan Documents Center, the work of Grace York at the University of Michigan. One of the most comprehensive sources of for finding government and statistical information on the internet.

This is the sixth year that MARS has compiled its list of best free online reference sites. Here's an archive of previous winners from 1999 onward.

Other Great Online Reference Sources

We've covered other reference sources, including GuruNet, which just announced that it is morphing into a free online service with a new name: Answers.com.

I've also written about question answering services powered by human beings, such as those offered by the Library of Congress and Wondir.

Other reference sites we've covered include Wikipedia - A Collaborative, Multilingual Encyclopedia, and some specialized resources including the All Music Guide.

For more links to sources of reference information, see our selection of speciality search engines on the Search Engine Watch site.

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NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

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