Say you're writing a report and need to double-check a fact or two. Or say you just heard something on TV or the radio and want to make sure it's correct. What do you do?
In the past, you reached for an almanac or encyclopedia or headed to the library. Today, in the Age of the Internet, these facts are as close as your computer screen.
To check a fact you might be tempted to fire up Google at www.google.com, the best general-interest Web search engine. But despite its sophisticated search technology that helps you hone in on relevant information, Google still can be too scattershot an approach when fact checking.
Nothing beats an almanac for quick facts on everyday items, and nothing beats InfoPlease.com at www.infoplease.com as a source for free online almanacs. It offers a range of almanacs on world and domestic issues; history and government; business, society and culture; biography; health and science; arts and entertainment; and sports. The search engine also has a dictionary, concise encyclopedia and atlas.
For more meaty material, you should surf to a full-fledged online encyclopedia. Britannica Online includes the full text of Encyclopaedia Britannica at www.britannica.com along with a dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, audio and video clips and links to other Web sites. You can read the first few sentences of encyclopedia articles for free, but full access costs $10 per month or $70 per year.
Though they're more concise, other excellent online encyclopedias include MSN Encarta at www.encarta.msn.com and Encyclopedia.com at www.encyclopedia.com. Encarta, however, can be overloaded and slow, and some of its articles require you to have purchased the CD-ROM version. Encyclopedia.com, along with providing free encyclopedia articles, includes links to eLibrary, a compilation of articles from thousands of newspapers, magazines and TV and radio transcripts. A subscription costs $25 per month or $125 per year.
The best biographical encyclopedia on the Web is Biography.com at www.biography.com. It has more than 25,000 articles on current and historical figures.
If it's word wisdom you're after, Dictionary.com at www.dictionary.com may have it. Offering a dictionary, thesaurus and translation tools for Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese, the site also includes links to foreign language, medical, science and other dictionaries. An even more comprehensive translation site is AltaVista's Babelfish at www.world.altavista.com/tr. It handles the above languages plus Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
Say you come across an acronym that you can't make sense of. Acronym Finder at www.acronymfinder.com offers definitions of more than 242,000 acronyms and abbreviations. If it's technology related, CMP's TechEncyclopedia at www.techweb.com/encyclopedia may be an even better choice. It has the definitions of more than 20,000 acronyms and other terms related to computers and the Internet.
Sometimes you want to know in detail how something works. The appropriately named site HowStuffWorks at www.howstuffworks.com provides descriptions, diagrams and photos of more than 2,500 devices and processes used in a broad range of categories including automotive, electronics, health and money.
If it's a statistic you need, check out Statistics.com at www.statistics.com. You'll find numbers from government and other sources on a range of different topics though it's more likely to be regularly published data rather than private market research. Another good site is the University of Michigan's Statistical Resources on the Web at www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/stats.html.
Two excellent sites for checking general health information are Harvard University-affiliated InteliHealth at www.intelihealth.com and MayoClinic.com at www.mayoclinic.com. For information on brand name and generic pharmaceutical drugs, RxList at www.rxlist.com and the National Library of Medicine's Medline Plus Drug Information at www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginformation.html are useful.
A number of sites compile links of reference materials. The best overall is the University of Michigan's Internet Public Library at www.ipl.org. There you'll find links to almanacs, calendars, dictionaries, style and writing guides, quotations, biographies, encyclopedias, atlases, books, magazines, newspapers and other material.
Another good general reference site is Researchville at www.researchville.com. It conveniently lets you do "meta searching" of multiple sources at once with just a single query. But it doesn't combine results on a single page. You can search multiple almanacs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers, newswires, magazines, health sources, education sources, government sources and discussion forums.
Finally, you might think that UselessKnowledge.com at www.uselessknowledge.com is fairly useless. But this whimsically named site is a great trivia resource, letting you - among other things - search for arcane information by keyword.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [e-mail reidgold] or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.