Best Free Reference Web Sites: Eighth Annual List

RUSA Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS)

Welcome to the eighth annual Best Free Reference Web Sites List.In 1998, the Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) appointed an ad hoc task force to develop a method of recognizing outstanding reference Web sites. The task force became a formal committee at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2001 Annual Conference. This is the eighth Best Free Reference Web Sites list produced by the group. The list is published in each year’s fall issue of Reference & User Services Quarterly . The annotations also are included in electronic resource records for the sites in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. An online version of the list appears on the MARS publications portion of the RUSA Web page, along with a new combined index to sites included in previous lists. A subject index is being created; links to it will be included on the Web page in the future.

Because the Web is a changing world, readers should note that the Web sites were as annotated on the date the member reviewed the site. Reviewing previous lists is not part of the committee’s charge.

Once again, the committee considered sites in all subject areas, selecting only free sites that meet the definition of ready reference and that would be of value in all types of libraries. The committee has established the following criteria for nominated Web sites:

1. Quality, depth, and usefulness of content

  • clear statement of the content, including any
    intended biases;
  • appropriate for the intended audience;
  • provide appropriate links to other Web sites; andn
    attention to detail, such as absence of grammatical

2. Ready reference; usefulness for reference to answer specific questions

  • Ready reference; usefulness for reference to answer specific questions
  • may also give a broad perspective of a particular subject

3. Uniqueness of content

  • uniqueness of the resource as a whole; creativity; and useful in a variety of reference settings

4. Currency of content

  • links are kept up-to-date; and
  • update frequency is appropriate for the subject matter

5. Authority of producer

  • authority and legality clearly stated; and
  • if not easily recognizable, an explanation of the history and purpose of the organization

6. Ease of use

  • user-friendly design, easy navigation;
  • good search engine;
  • attractive; graphic design leaves a good impression on the user; and
  • easy output (printing or downloading)

7. Customer service

  • contacts are responsive; e-mail addresses are correct;
  • authority of producer;
  • authority and legality clearly stated; and
  • if not recognizable, an explanation of the history and purpose of the organization

8. Efficiency (Note: Efficiency is affected by the user’s method of Internet access–dial-up access, for example, will no doubt be less efficient for all sites–evaluators endeavored to take such differences into account.)

  • graphics load quickly or are not so intensive as to seriously degrade access;
  • any required plug-ins are available for easy download; and
  • reliable, speedy server; information is there when

9. Appropriate use of the Web as a medium

  • components are well-integrated (audio, video, text);
  • useful information is still available, even if the user does not have all the plug-ins and media components; and
  • effective use of Java, other newer technologies

As in previous years, the committee worked virtually, and the process went smoothly, especially since many of the members were returning for a fifth, sixth, or seventh year. Each member of the committee nominated five to seven sites using the criteria specified above. The committee members then reviewed the annotated nominations and voted for their favorite sites. Previous winners were not eligible for this year’s list, but a site that did not win previously could be renominated.
Selected sites were notified electronically with a recognition certificate. They are also invited to use the MARS logo and link to the online version of this list, located on the MARS publications portion of the RUSA Web page.

AF: Acronym Finder, Mountain Data Systems. Reviewed: March 17, 2006.

Developed by Mountain Data Systems, in cooperation with several other groups, AF: Acronym Finder describes itself as “The world’s largest and most accurate human-edited dictionary of acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms.” It currently contains more than 475,000 entries covering fields such as information technology, business and finance, slang and pop culture, military and government, organizations and schools, and science and medicine. Both searching by acronym and browsing by broad subjects are available. It is possible to expand your search to Acronym Attic, containing almost three million entries. However, these have not been edited. This is a very useful resource for anyone trying to discover what particular acronyms represent.

American Rhetoric, Michael E. Eidenmuller. Reviewed: March 8, 2006.

American Rhetoric combines the Online Speech Bank and The Top 100 Speeches into one easy-to-use, searchable reference database for all ages. According to the Web site, the online speech bank is an index to and growing database of more than five thousand full-text, audio, and video (streaming) versions of public speeches, sermons, legal proceedings, lectures, debates, interviews, and other recorded media events. There are approximately 604 active links arranged alphabetically by first name and checked for errors at least once every two weeks. According to leading scholars of American public address, the top one hundred speeches in this Web site are an index to and partial database of full-text transcriptions of the one hundred most significant American political speeches of the twentieth century.

Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Paul Getty Trust. Reviewed: March 17, 2006.

AATO contains more than 125,000 terms covering “fine art, architecture, decorative arts, archival materials, and material culture” and is more than a thesaurus, including brief definitions (the searchable “notes” field) and an impressive, easily navigable hierarchical tree. Extensive and still growing, it includes historic and contemporary terms. Any concept can list numerous variants (for example, alternate spellings, plural form, synonyms) and may include brief citations for bibliographic sources and contributors. Every page includes a link to generate a printer-friendly version; a thorough help page is always available. AATO’s sister databases from Getty, Union List of Artist Names Online (220,000+ terms) and Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names Online (1,000,000+ terms), are similarly designed. This comprehensive Web resource offers an excellent introduction to art terms.

BBC News, BBC News. Reviewed: March 5, 2006.

BBC News is the largest news broadcaster in the world, with more than two thousand journalists in forty-eight bureaus around the globe. Visitors to this site will find extensive, in-depth coverage of the world’s news that strives to be “impartial, fair, and accurate,” offering an alternate perspective to that of American-based news media. Sections of the site focus on world regions, business, health, science and nature, technology, and entertainment. Articles are well illustrated, and often supplemented by links to audio and video coverage. Articles are also accompanied by links to older, related reports furthering understanding of complex issues. News is available in thirty-three languages. Users can download a desktop-alert application, and can subscribe to e-mail updates and Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds.

The Big Cartoon Database, Dave Koch, The Big Cartoon Database ( Reviewed: February 22, 2006; revised May 1, 2006.

Produced since 1998, the Big Cartoon Database currently features 70,298 cartoons from film and television, 4,965 series, 26,294 registered users, and 4,210 reviews. Cartoons can be accessed by studio, an Academy Award-winning classic-cartoon link, or by a basic or advanced keyword-search area. Detailed entries include a brief history of the cartoon, a synopsis, cast and crew, production notes, user reviews, and a cartoon forum for registered users to discuss a particular cartoon. Although it does provide a cartoon pictures link, original cartoons, however, are not available for viewing or downloading on this Web site. The Big Cartoon Database is the definitive Web compendium for anyone interested in the history of animation.

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