The Net is a terrific reference tool. There, I said it, the obvious. It’s like stating that you should use a saw to cut down a tree. But have you ever tried to do an online search for the currency of Bhutan in the 18th century, who did the music for “The Third Man,” the meaning of CLEP, DHCP or DQMOT or the current time in Reykjavk?
A garden-variety search engine might eventually cough up the answer, but if you’re in a hurry, forget it. Even index directories such as Yahoo! can be time-consuming because they lack filters.
This column has covered ways to make your Net searches easier, but no matter how well we word our searches, we often end up chasing wild geese. The simple fact is we need librarians, or must aspire to be librarians.
Of course, credibility is the big bugaboo. There are still folks who will only trust what they see in a bound book — and for good reason. Major publishers employ armies of editors, fact-checkers and proofers to confirm everything that goes in print. And the Net has no shortage of would-be experts, free from accountability, dispensing information left and right.
The flip side is that certain reference material can become stale once it hits the printed page. Webster’s doesn’t offer monthly updates. Furthermore, information unable to make it into publication or difficult to locate for whatever the reason (too controversial, too obscure, too minor) can easily find a home on the Net. I mean, where else would I locate the information available at www.dumblaws.com (though I have to wonder if it is actually illegal to eat chicken with a knife and fork in Gainesville, Ga.).
For general reference information, Microsoft’s online version of Encarta, Encyclopedia.com and Information Please can get the job done. If you want to find what’s available on the Net and don’t have a bookmark to zap you to a particular reference spot, there are several good starting points, ones that aren’t search engines per se.
At the top of my list is About.com, formerly MiningCo.com. I stroll through Yahoo’s indexes and I smell dust and mildew, but About.com throbs with activity. The categories within About.com are divided into GuideSites, overseen by editors, who sift through the sites, choose the best, and in some cases, write helpful essays on their topics. Some are bona fide experts in their fields, others are just enthusiasts, but you get the impression that they all know their necks of the Net. Some of About.com’s GuideSites even have glossaries to familiarize you with basic terms before wading into deeper waters.
The sites in About.com’s Reference section are well chosen, current and accompanied by informative articles about Web searching. A particularly relevant one is about the “invisible Web,” the iceberg of databases that even the craftiest Web spiders and bots can’t catalog. This should explain why you sometimes just can’t find what you’re looking for. More and more Web sites aren’t merely collections of static pages with permanent addresses. They are just templates, waiting for information to be inserted.
The Open Directory Project works on a principle similar to About.com’s — human-powered organization — it is, however, younger, and the editors work on a volunteer basis, hence the quality of information can vary.
Despite its intimation of an avuncular guide, Ask Jeeves isn’t powered by human editors. It does, however, produce impressive results to plain English queries. Ask Jeeves tries several routes to answering your questions, scooping up links to not only large search engines but also specialized databases.
Now for those bookmarks that will take you to the source. Mind you, this is by no means a definitive reference list; I’ve obviously failed to include bird identification lists, Sanskrit thesauri and databases of nautical knots. And I sincerely apologize. This mini-list just scratches the surface of the global library.
For word searches, I often go to OneLook.com, which draws from general and specialized dictionaries. Just take a look at the list of online dictionaries that OneLook.com searches through, and you’ll realize that if you can’t find a certain word here, it’s probably gibberish. I know what a cumdach is, courtesy of a Book Binder’s dictionary. Do you?
Then there are hard-to-find expressions du jour, lingo with a short life span. What are you going to do if a coworker talks about confronting a “grass ceiling”? You could go to the Word Spy and learn that it’s a discriminatory practice that prevents women from using golf as a way to conduct business, or that a gynotikolobomassophile is a Scrabble lover’s term for a person who like to nibble on women’s ear lobes.
If I need a list of gaffes in “Star Wars Episode I” (aside from the inclusion of JarJar), or the correct spelling of Bjorn Bjelfvenstam (you know, the Bjorn of “Smultronstallet” fame?), I’ll make a beeline for the Internet Movie Database, the undisputed champ.
A comparable site for music is hard to find. Online CD stores such as CDNow, which has combined forces with Music Boulvard, come in handy, but the breadth of info tends to be limited. You won’t find the birth date of Hank Williams here. For bios, reviews and discographies, late-comer RollingStone.com and Yahoo! Music do a serviceable job, but going to individual fan sites is still the best route, especially if you’re looking for lyrics.
For acronyms, where else but AcronymFinder.com? Need a translation of SCAT into Japanese? http://www.inv.co.jp/~yoshio/DW/Ryaku/RyakuA.htm
There are dozens of language dictionaries on the Web (even some that are downloadable), but for quick translations, AltaVista’s Babelfish is terrific, especially when I have the sudden need to exclaim, “Je n’ai jamais vu des lobes d’oreille comme les votres.”