Magazine article Information Today

Free Web-Based Ready Reference Services: Much Has Changed since These Sources Were Last Reviewed in May 2000. (Internet Insights)

Magazine article Information Today

Free Web-Based Ready Reference Services: Much Has Changed since These Sources Were Last Reviewed in May 2000. (Internet Insights)

Article excerpt

Two years ago I reviewed the rather convoluted web of the free Web-based ready reference sources, depicting the cross-licensing of the resources to various portal sites and other aggregators ("Silent Partners on the Web," May 2000, p. 36). Much has changed since then. Most importantly, two classic works, the Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth edition, and the American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, were released. All of the third parties replaced the earlier edition of the latter, and most of them also replaced the earlier edition or the concise version of the former. This is good news and bad news for many librarians as the general-interest encyclopedias and dictionaries, as well as factbooks, country/state profiles, and atlases, are the bread and butter of their everyday activities. The suites that integrate, or at least aggregate, several of these sources are particularly relevant.

Short-Lived Players

Many sites closed some or all of their ready reference services or replaced high-quality resources with lower quality ones. Probably the most painful demise involved the short-lived cooperation between World Book, Inc. and the Discovery Channel site (http://www.discovery.com), which hosted the universally respected World Book Encyclopedia. It was a match made in heaven. The excellent Discovery Channel site added yet another high-quality resource, and World Book, Inc. got the exposure it deserves-- benefiting all those who visited the site to use the free encyclopedia. Earlier this year the parties divorced, and there's now only a terse message that the World Book Encyclopedia is no longer available at the site. Although individuals can subscribe at the publisher site (http://www.worldbookonline.com) for a very reasonable $9.95/month or $49.95/year (libraries can also subscribe at a rate to be determined by the school's parameters), shutting down the free service was definitely a setback for many.

Probably fewer tears were shed over the abrupt closing of the Funk & Wagnalls reference suite, because of the less-than-stellar reputation of the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, whose print versions sold in supermarkets alongside dog food and laundry detergents--not exactly an image booster. The suite went south not only at the Funk & Wagnalls site but also at those of all the parties who licensed the suite or part of it, such as Lycos, YouthStream, and Xoom Research Center (which itself was bought by NBC, where the NBC Reference section degenerated into the Business Finder, People Finder, Maps & Directions, Classified Ads, Horoscopes, and Games departments). Funk & Wagnalls didn't even bother to put out the "Out of Business" sign or some notice that might have shown a touch of professionalism.

Less painful was the closing of the American Heritage Dictionary at Lycos and at Allwords, which now features a Webster's dictionary. You immediately recognize that it's not the Merriam-Webster dictionary but one of the dime-a-dozen Websters that soon will be spelled in lowercase, as the name can be and is used by any publisher that puts out a dictionary of the most dubious value. At Lycos, there is still a Reference Room, which is fed by the Information Please site. The latter has not only the venerable Information Please Almanacs but other excellent reference sources (see more about it below).

Incumbent Players

Bartleby.com is one of the pioneers of offering the high-quality, free reference resources on the Web that it licensed from the publishers. The company keeps a low profile but has been steadily enhancing its top-notch suite, which includes the full-text collections of the best poetry, novels, and dramas from Aristophanes to Virginia Woolf, and nonfiction writings from Henry Adams to H. G. Wells, with hundreds of classics in between. Such works have not been considered as ready reference, but in the digital format they might as well be used to find a partially remembered quotation or answer the question, "How many times did Shakespeare use the word 'wrath' ? …

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