Best Free Reference Web Sites: Third Annual List RUSA Machine-Assisted Reference Section. (from Committees of RUSA)

Article excerpt

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. This is the third MARS Best Free Reference Web Sites list. All lists have been published in the fall issue of Reference & User Services Quarterly.

Since the Web is a changing world, readers should note that the Web sites were as annotated on the date the member reviewed the site. From last year's list, Britannica.com (www.britannica. com) has become fee-based and Virtual Garden Time/Life Plant Encyclopedia (www.vg.com) has changed completely into a commercial site. Reviewing previous lists is not part of the charge of the Task Force.

Once again, 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 members felt it was appropriate to exclude fee-based sites. Fee-based services involve many collection management and access issues beyond the scope of this project. These issues include limited access to our user audience and also the logistical problems in obtaining trial subscriptions that would delay the publication of this work.

This year the task force worked more clearly on defining the criteria to which the Web sites nominated must incorporate. The criteria were:

   1. All nominated Web sites will be free or predominantly free, no-fee
   sites, in accordance with the current mission of the MARS Best Web Sites
   Task Force. The task force may consider sites that impose fees for specific
   types of information if a substantial and important amount of information
   is still freely available.

   2. 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.

   3. "Ready" reference: usefulness for reference to answer specific questions

      * May also give a broad perspective of a particular subject

   4. Availability

      * The Web site's server is reliable and speedy; information is there
        when you need it.

   5. 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)

    6. Currency of content

      * Links are kept up-to-date

      * Update frequency is appropriate for the subject matter

   7. Customer service

      * Contacts are responsive; e-mail addresses are correct

   8. Authority of producer

      * Authority and legality clearly stated

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

   9. Uniqueness of content

   10. Uniqueness of the resource as a whole; creativity

   11. Useful in a variety of reference settings

   12. Efficiency (Note: efficiency is affected by the user's method of
       Internet access. Dial-up access will no doubt be less efficient for all
       sites. Evaluators should 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

      * Reliable server

   13. Appropriate use of the Web as a medium

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

      * Useful information is still available, even if the user does not have
        all the plugins and media components.

      *  Effective use of Java, other newer technologies

The task force again worked virtually, and the process went smoothly since many members were returning for a second or third year. …