The Best Reference Sites Online

reference sites
Credit: Ezra Bailey

Whether you're looking for the average rainfall in the Amazon rainforest, researching Roman history, or just having fun learning to find information, you'll get some great help using my list of the best research and reference sites on the Web.

Types of Reference Sites

There are generally two types of reference sites. The first consist of specialized Web sites maintained by subject experts, who will provide detailed and specific responses to your questions.

The second are run by generalists (often reference librarians) who don't necessarily answer your question, but point you to the best resources for conducting your own search.

Which Kind Of Reference Site Is Best? 

Which type of these resources you choose depends on what your question is. If you're interested in a really complex or obscure topic—the history of the mullet, for example—your best bet is to ask an expert on that subject. If you're interested in a broader topic, or simply want a good overview of a subject, the generalists will usually provide you with better results.There are hundreds, if not thousands, of experts in specific subjects that will answer your questions on the Web.

Find and Ask An Expert Via Search Engines

To find your own expert in a specific category, try the following search string at Google or any other search engine:

"expert+subject" (substitute your own keyword for "subject")

Find a Librarian

One of your best sources for expert information is your local librarian. They're trained to find answers to obscure questions, they're friendly, and best of all, you can talk with them face to face. Librarians will often ask you questions that you might not have considered, leading to even better results.

You can get help from librarians online, too.

The Best Reference Sites for General Research

The Internet Public Library is primarily intended to get you started with some ideas and places to begin if you've got a big project. The IPL won't perform lengthy research for you—but they do provide some tools to assist your search, both online and at your local library. Their vast collection includes IPL Expert Guides that are "intended to help you get started doing research on a particular topic, both online and at your local library."

The Library of Congress enables you to not only ask a librarian, but search catalogs of libraries from all over the world. This is truly a HUGE resource that should be on your Top Ten of best research sites. Anything from Academica Sinica (Taiwan) to Yale University (US) is here and ready to be searched.

Another useful service is Reference Desk's Ask An Expert Locator. This is a extremely useful site, and while the Reference Desk does not personally answer questions, you have an excellent chance of finding someone who will by using their searchable subject directory.

Answers.com is a free reference search service. Its results are particulary useful, since Answers.com weeds out extraneous or superficial sites and gets their results straight from encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference tools.

NASA's Ask An Expert is NASA's own source for space and science research help. Search the Archives to see if your question has already been answered, or use the drop down menus to browse through missions, topics, etc.

FirstGov.gov is probably the best place to start when looking for specific government information. Make sure you check the Explore Topics collection to get an idea of what there is at this exhaustive resource.

Reference.com.Extremely simple to use, very basically laid out.

Refdesk.com. Includes in-depth research links to breaking news, Word of the Day,and Daily Pictures. A fun site with a ton of information.

Encyclopedia.com. As stated on their site, Encyclopedia.com provides users with more than 57,000 frequently updated articles from the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.

Encyclopedia Brittanica. One of the world's oldest encyclopedias online.

Open Directory Reference. The Open Directory's guide to various reference sites.

WebReference.com. A great resource for webmasters and anyone else who wants to learn how to develop a webpage.

Purdue University Library Quick Reference. A very good site with tons of info; includes resources specific to Purdue University and surrounding areas in Indiana, USA.

Educator's Reference Desk. Probably the best reference site online for teachers. Includes thousands of informative links, lesson plans, and general reference information.

Physician Desk Reference. Look for detailed medical information here.

iTools.com. Excellent site; serves as a gateway to many reference and research links.

Baseball-Reference.com. Everything you ever wanted to know about the sport of baseball.

LibrarySpot.com. An excellent site that has hundreds of reference and research sources indexed all in one site.

The Internet Public Library. An invaluable resource that will pretty much take care of all your reference needs.

FOLDOC - Free Online Dictionary of Computing: extremely detailed computing dictionary; I don't think that there's a computing term out there that's not in FOLDOC.

Librarians Internet Index: One of my absolute favorite sites on the Web. You could spend hours here lost in the vast variety of information and resources.

Wikipedia: Another of my favorite sites; lots of great information here for practically any subject. 

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