The Best Reference Sites Online

Where to look when you need information

Reference site on laptop
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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 this list of the best research and reference sites on the web.

Types of Reference Sites

There are two types of reference sites. The first consists of specialized websites maintained by subject experts, who provide detailed and specific responses to your questions. The second type is run by generalists (often reference librarians) who don't necessarily answer your question but point you to the best resources for conducting your search.

Which Kind of Reference Site Is Best?

The type of resources you choose depends on your question. If you're interested in a 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 want an overview of a subject, the generalists usually provide you with better results. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of experts in specific subjects that can answer your questions on the web.

Find and Ask an Expert Via Search Engines

To find an expert in a specific category, try the following search string at Google or any other search engine: expert+[subject] (substitute your keyword for [subject]).

Find a Librarian

One of your best sources of expert information is your local librarian. Librarians are trained to find answers to obscure questions, they're friendly, and best of all, you can talk with them face to face. Librarians 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 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 10 of best research sites. Anything from Academica Sinica in Taiwan to Yale University in the U.S. is here and ready to be searched.

Another useful service is Reference Desk.org. This is an extremely useful site, and while the Reference Desk does not personally answer questions, you have an excellent chance of finding someone who will be using their searchable subject directory.

In addition to those sites already mentioned, this list contains many sites where you can find useful information:

  • NASA's Ask An Expert is NASA's 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.
  • USA.gov is probably the best place to start when looking for specific government information. Make sure you check the All Topics and Services collection to get an idea of what there is at this exhaustive resource.
  • Reference.com is extremely simple to use with a basic layout. Just type your question in the search field.
  • Refdesk.com bills itself as the internet's fact checker. Includes in-depth research links to breaking news, editorials, This Day in History, Word of the Day, Daily Pictures and other references that make this a fun site with a ton of information.
  • Encyclopedia.com. As stated on their site, Encyclopedia.com provides users with more than 100 trusted sources including encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauruses.
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica. One of the world's oldest encyclopedias online.