Best Free Reference Web Sites

Article excerpt

Second Annual List

RUSA Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS)

The Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) appointed an ad hoc Task Force at the American Library Association's 1998 Annual Conference to develop a method of recognizing outstanding reference sites on the World Wide Web. At ALA Annual Conference 1999, the MARS Executive Committee moved to establish the list as an ongoing annual event and a new task force was appointed for 1999/2000; thus this is the second MARS Best Reference Web Sites list. Last year's list and all future MARS Best lists will be published in each year's fall issue of Reference and User

Services Quarterly.

This year the Task Force selected only free sites that meet the definition of ready reference and considered all subject areas with appeal to all types of libraries. The Task Force agreed that future lists might concentrate on a particular subject area, but there was a general consensus that it was most appropriate to exclude fee-based sites. Task Force members felt that fee-based services involve many collection management issues beyond the scope of this project. These issues included limited access to our user audience and also the logistical problems in obtaining trial subscriptions that would delay the publication of this work. The criteria established were:

Quality, depth, and usefulness of content

* Clear statement of the content, including any intended biases

* Appropriate for the intended audience

* Provides appropriate links to other Web sites.

* Attention to detail--absence of grammatical errors, etc.

Ready Reference--usefulness for reference to answer specific questions

* May also give a broad perspective of a particular subject

Ease of use

* User-friendly design--easy navigation

* Good search engine

* Attractive--graphic design leaves a good impression on the user

* Easy output (printing or downloading)

Currency of content

* Links are kept up-to-date

* Update frequency is appropriate for the subject matter

Customer service

* Contacts are responsive--e-mail addresses are correct

Authority of producer

* Authority and legality clearly stated

* If not easily recognizable, an explanation of the history and purpose of the organization

Uniqueness of content

* Uniqueness of the resource as a whole--creativity

* Useful in a variety of reference settings

Efficiency

* Graphics load quickly

* Any required plug-ins are available for easy download

* Reliable server

Appropriate use of the Web as a medium

* Components are well integrated (audio, video, text, etc.)

* Effective use of Java, other newer technologies

The task force worked together virtually except for an initial meeting at Midwinter Meeting. At that time, the group decided to allow each member to nominate and annotate five to ten sites using the established criteria. The task force would then review the annotated nominations and vote for their favorite sites. It was also decided that previous year's winners would not be eligible for this year's list but a site that did not win last year could be renominated.

Once again, virtual participation worked extremely well, allowing the work of the group to proceed expeditiously between ALA meetings. At least one member of the group could not have participated without virtual membership. Members of the task force were again generally enthusiastic about the project. Many felt that they had learned a great deal about Web sites and discovered new and useful sites for their work.

Selected sites were notified electronically with a recognition certificate. They are invited to use the MARS logo and link to this list at www. …