Best Free Reference Web Sites 2004
Sixth Annual List
RUSA Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS)

This is an annual series initiated under the auspices of the Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of ALA to recognize outstanding reference sites on the World Wide Web. View selection criteria.

"Since the Web is a changing world, readers should note that these Web sites were as annotated on the date the member reviewed the site. Reviewing previous lists is not part of the charge of the Committee (formerly the Task Force on the Best of Free Reference Web Sites). However, we will make note of updated links, or other very substantial changes (such as a conversion from free to fee-based), if they are brought to our attention." RUSA Quarterly Fall 2001

Reviewed March 2004
AARP is the web site for people over 50, whether retired or not. A vast assortment of resources makes this one of the best sites on the web. From health and travel to taxes and finances to computers and technology, there are topics for everyone at AARP. The site boasts a colorful, user-friendly interface with print large enough for people to read without squinting. There is a handy site map and a search box on the main page making it easy to navigate. An e-mail subscription is available in English and in Spanish. AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, is a non-profit organization dedicated to "enhancing the quality of life for all of us as we age."

The American Civil War Homepage
George H. Hoemann, University of Tennessee
Reviewed 3 March 2004
The American Civil War Homepage seeks to provide a comprehensive directory of hypertext links about the Civil War period (1861-1865). Intended for general audiences, this Internet directory covers the war from the major military, political, and social perspectives. Links arranged in broad categories take the user to sites that supply narrative overviews, bibliographies, photographs, and primary source documents. Updating is frequent, but the large number of listings does result in some dead links. The contact information is current and responsive to feedback. For both beginners and serious Civil War researchers, this site is a logical starting point.

American Women’s History: A Research Guide
Ken Middleton, Middle Tennessee State University
Reviewed 7 March 2004
As noted in the Introduction to this site, “American Women's History provides citations to print and Internet reference sources, as well as to selected large primary source collections. The guide also provides information about the tools researchers can use to find additional books, articles, dissertations, and primary sources.? What makes this site especially useful is the ease of navigation and intuitive layout. The guide has the depth to be useful to experienced scholars while at the same time being easy to use for the novice researcher. The links to primary sources on the Internet, categorized into seventy-five sub-fields, make this a goldmine for students studying American women’s history.
Oxford University Press
Reviewed 23 March 2004
In addition to including searchable access to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, this site features many other helpful resources for writers and students. The site is divided into several sections: Ask the Experts, World of Words, Better Writing, Games, Global English, and Foreign Languages. Each area has outstanding features, such as the wonderful “borrowings into English,?in the Global English section. This section allows the user to click on a map and see what words from the chosen country have been adopted into the English language ?did you know that both ‘bug?and ‘flannel?are Welsh words? Other resources are just as enjoyable, interesting ?and practical. This site would be an exceptional teaching tool for upper-level high school English classes or lower level college students.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
U.S. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
Reviewed 5 March 2004
Maintained by the governing body of the Federal Reserve, this site provides an excellent gateway for the Federal Reserve System as a whole. Both banking professionals and those with a general interest in the economy will find useful features on this site. A search engine, as well as topical links, lead the user to rich descriptive and full-text material that includes press releases, statistical data, speeches, publications, and consumer information. In addition to descriptions of the twelve Federal Reserve district banks, there is an electronic map which links to the district homepages, which provide valuable information about different regional economies. This site is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in banking at the federal level or the economy as a whole.

United Nations Statistics Division
Reviewed 8 March 2004
This site serves as a valuable resource for primary and secondary school educators developing curricula focused on global concerns such as peace, poverty and work. For up to five UN member states, InfoNation allows users to compare statistical data drawn from the World Statistic’s Pocketbook, Statistical Yearbook and Demographic Yearbook. “Country at a Glance?allows users to view statistics on the population, economy, health, technology, and environment as well as current news for a single member state. The interactive format is fun and easy to use; colors and charts present information in clear and meaningful patterns. The introduction provides an overview of the history and the work of the UN complete with an organizational chart that links to the appropriate homepages.

Earthtrends: the Environmental Information Portal
World Resources Institute
Reviewed 25 February 2004
Earthtrends is a free online database that focuses on issues of sustainable development and the environment. It includes data from over 40 internationally recognized sources, including international and national agencies as well as private corporations and organizations. This attractive and well laid-out site includes time series for over 200 countries and 500 variables in subjects ranging from agriculture and food, biodiversity, climate, economics, business and the environment, energy, population, and water resources. In some cases statistics go back forty to fifty years, depending on the availability of data. In addition, the site offers country profiles, maps, selected articles, and links to related information. Free registration is required to view some data. Although some of the data is very specialized, this is a useful resource for quickly accessing and comparing a variety of sources and for comparing countries and regions on a wide range of environmental and social topics such as the percentage of the population living on less than $1 per day, CO2 emissions per capita, the number of organic farms, or the number of mobile telephone subscribers.

Reviewed 23 March 2004
Search for recipes by keyword, watch cooking instruction videos, or browse recipes and articles by theme are just a few of the possibilities offered by Epicurious. In addition, Epicurious also features cookbook reviews, an extensive wine information section, and restaurant information. What sets Epicurious apart from many other web recipe sites is the fact that most of the recipes included come from two of the most well-regarded cooking magazines in publication, Bon Appétit and Gourmet. Many others come from cookbooks. Users are invited to rate recipes they have tested and to include information about modifications made and results. Users can also save the recipes they select in a virtual recipe box. All in all, this is an outstanding site for locating just about anything one needs to know about cooking and eating.

Eric Weisstein’s World of Science: A Wolfram Web Resource
Eric W. Weisstein. Wolfram Research.
Reviewed 22 March 2004
Weisstein’s site features biographies and explanations of topics in mathematics, physics, astronomy, and chemistry. The information content is appropriate for advanced high school or undergraduate college course work. The Biography section can be searched by gender/minority status, branch of science, historical periods, nationality and prize winners. There are linked references and lists of referenced sources for each article. The subject area sections of the site are easily searched by divisions within the discipline. For example, under chemistry one can look for help under organic chemistry, then hydrocarbons. In that section are explanations of naming, structures, reactions, etc. Physics, math and astronomy sections are similarly broken down by divisions of the discipline and then smaller areas of study. Some areas of this site are still under construction. However, it is superior for help with advanced topics in these subject areas and is notable for listing references.

Synergos Technologies, Inc
Reviewed 12 March 2004
Quoting from the ERsys home page: “Using maps, charts, reports, and relevant links, ERsys covers over 2600 U.S. cities with detailed information on demographics, environmental factors, economic indicators, housing statistics, media ?schools, transportation, [and] local contacts.?While most of the information provided by this site is available elsewhere, the ease of use and the amount of information available makes this an excellent site for someone looking for information about the 2600 cities covered. The site was designed for people who are preparing to move or travel or who are working in site analysis and selection or real estate. Much of the information is presented in easy to read, well-labeled charts, graphs, and maps. Links to many of the site’s sources are available for those looking for more detailed information.

History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web
American Social History Project Center for Media and Learning (City University of New York), Center for History and New Media (George Mason University)
Reviewed 4 March 2004
Designed for teachers and students at the high school and college levels, History Matters is a gateway site to web-based materials about U.S. History. A search engine, as well as broad topical links, provide access to primary documents, images, audio files, and secondary articles that connect the user to people and places throughout U.S. History. Students can also find links to quality resources for guidance on research standards, citing material, analyzing primary sources, and evaluating web sites. Teaching resources include syllabi, strategies from successful history teachers, and sample assignments using web resources. History Matters is an excellent resource for students seeking a clearinghouse for information about U.S. History, and teachers looking for ways to enhance their teaching.

Household Products Database
National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health & Human Services
Reviewed 20 March 2004
The Household Products Database “links over 4,000 consumer brands to health effects from Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) provided by the manufacturers.?A consumer or scientist can search or browse by product name, chemical, or MSDS. Household products included are those usually found under the kitchen and bathroom sinks such as Comet Cleanser with Chlorinol and SOS Steel Wool Pads. A search of the “Comet?brand name retrieves all products containing that brand name. Records for each product contain a physical description of the product, its purpose, the manufacturer with address and telephone numbers, health effects, safe handling and disposal information, and ingredients from the product's label and/or Material Safety Data Sheets. One especially nice feature is the ability to highlight a word or phrase on the product information page and generate an automatic search of TOXNET ( simply by clicking on the button provided. This is a valuable resource for both consumers and scientists who need to quickly find contents, health effects, or safe handling instructions for common household products.

Math Forum
Drexel University
Reviewed 22 March 2004
The Math Forum at Drexel University is a comprehensive resource for Math education assistance. The site contains hands-on web learning tools, lesson plans, and activities for pre-kindergarten through college courses. There is also a section, “Teacher2Teacher,?aimed at parents as well as teachers who have questions about teaching mathematics. Other helpful features are online lesson plans, divided by grade, and the Internet Mathematics Library which contains links to other math web sites. The Ask Dr. Math section is extremely helpful for librarians who field a lot of homework help questions. There is a searchable archive of answers to posted questions about mathematics from students from elementary school through college. If the answer can’t be found in the archive, then the question can be sent to Dr. Math for a response.

National Geographic Society
Reviewed 8 March 2004
NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM, the official web site of the National Geographic Society, is designed for educators and students. Featuring easy navigational tools, this is a multimedia database that promotes and provides access to geographic knowledge and brings about awareness of the need to protect the planet’s natural resources. One of the highlights is the “Today’s Features?section which provides daily information and access to national and global issues. Also included are links to articles in the following categories: Adventure and Exploration, Animals and Nature, History and Culture, Kids, Maps and Geography, Photography, and Travel. There is a special section designed specifically for Teachers and Students, which provides access to Educator’s Home Page and Homework Help.

Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations Union Catalog
Reviewed 25 March 2004
As stated on the web site, the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations Union Catalog is dedicated to “improving graduate education by developing accessible digital libraries of theses and dissertations.? Because this project is still evolving, there are different interfaces with different coverage. The largest, hosted by OCLC, currently contains records for over 98,000 electronic theses and dissertations from over 40 institutions worldwide. You can search by title, creator, contributor, or abstract and limit by topic, institution, year or language. Records provide abstracts of the work, along with a link to the full text when access is unrestricted. While there is scanty documentation and currently no online help, this project is evolving into a valuable metasearch tool for electronic theses and dissertations residing in disparate institutional repositories.

NIST Chemistry WebBook
P.J. Linstrom and W.G. Mallard, eds. National Institute of Standards and Technology
Reviewed 25 March 2004
The NIST Chemistry WebBook contains thermochemical data for over 7000 organic and small inorganic compounds, reaction thermochemistry data for over 8000 reactions, IR spectra for over 16,000 compounds, mass spectra for over 15,000 compounds, UV/Vis spectra for over 1600 compounds, electronic and vibrational spectra for over 4500 compounds, constants of diatomic molecules (spectroscopic data) for over 600 compounds, ion energetics data for over 16,000 compounds and thermophysical property data for 34 fluids. There are numerous ways to search for data on specific compounds including name, chemical formula, CAS registry number, molecular weight, chemical structure, or selected ion energetics and spectral properties. The NIST Chemistry WebBook is a comprehensive source for chemical and physical property data for chemical compounds.

NSSN National Resource for Global Standards
American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
Reviewed 25 March 2004
The NSSN National Resource for Global Standards contains over 250,000 references to standards from more than 600 national, foreign, regional and international bodies worldwide. This, the free version, searches approved industry standards, approved international standards (ISO, IEC, ITU), approved U.S. government standards, and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) catalog. Users can search by standard number, title or abstract, and can limit the search by the developing body/ies or committees. There is also the option to search regulatory references to voluntary standards from the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The records provide brief descriptions of the standards and provide links to purchase electronic or print versions of the full text. This is a very useful discovery tool for national and international standards.

The NYPL Picture Collection Online
The New York Public Library
Reviewed 9 March 2004
The digital collection of images presented here (?0,000 digitized images from books, magazines and newspapers as well as original photographs, prints and postcards, mostly created before 1923? is taken from the in-print collection of images that NYPL has been collecting since 1915. While both sets of images are useful to teachers, artists, students, and a variety of researchers, the organization and cataloging of the online collection is what makes these images so valuable. Users can browse the collection by name, title, subject, and author, and quick and advanced search options are available. The subject and physical descriptors for each image are extensive, and a source is given for each image. Images can be added to a “My Gallery?save function for viewing or ordering, and can be printed, emailed or saved to disk. Users who wish to order images for commercial use may do so by paying a fee to cover the cost of permissions and licensing.

Pew Internet & American Life
Pew Research Center
Reviewed 26 March 2004
According to its mission statement, the Pew Internet & American Life Project makes available "original, academic-quality research that explores the impact of the Internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life." Recent publications, which are in Adobe PDF format, include reports on the limited effectiveness of the CAN-SPAM Act and the impact of the Internet on older Americans. Those looking for information on the percentage of adult Internet users who use online dating services, play a game online, send an email message on an "average day," or engage in any of 60 some other categories of Internet use will find the Daily Internet Activities charts of interest. Users may sign up to receive email alerts when new reports are posted to the site, or to participate in research. Also included are links to other Internet statistics and market research sites, as well as links to technology news sites and other government and private sites focusing on the Internet and society. This is an excellent resource for those interested in obtaining information on the growth of the Internet and its social impact on American culture.

Picture History
Kunhardt Productions
Reviewed 23 March 2004
Describing itself as a “…digital library of high quality images and footage illustrating more than 200 years of American history,?this site has indexed still images of maps, postcards, photographs, cartoons, stereo cards, periodicals, and more, in addition to video and audio clips. The resources can be accessed through rather broad categories, simple keyword searches, or by using the very good advanced search tool, which allows keyword searches to be limited by such attributes as date, medium, color, broad subject area, original format, or photographer. Images can be licensed, purchased or sent as a free e-card from the website. The “picture history?logo will be overlaid on images reproduced from the website.

Plants Database
National Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Reviewed 20 March 2004
This database provides a wealth of information about plants growing in the United States. All types of plants are covered, from noxious weeds to ornamental flowers and food crops. It is aimed at state agricultural agencies, plant researchers, students, and the general public. Users can search the database by common name, scientific name, or symbol, and uncover results that include one of 16,000 high resolution images, species abstracts, growth distribution data and maps, crop information, plants symbols, plant growth data, a plant guide in PDF and word formats (if available), as well as a list of print resources for further information. A number of Culturally Significant Plant Guides were prepared with the cooperation of Native American tribal groups actively using plants in everyday living. The site also highlights a “Plant of the Week,?and links to off-site resources such as the Flora of North America ( )and the ITIS Biota Checklist ( ). The site i loads quickly, is easy to navigate, and includes a section on how to cite the PLANTS Database. This is a comprehensive resource for finding information about plants in the United States.

Research and Documentation Online
Bedford/St. Martin’s Press
Reviewed 23 March 2004
The late Diana Hacker wrote reference books on various writing-related topics; and this, her web site, is an incredibly rich repository of resources for researching, writing and citing materials. While resources like the Glossary of Library and Web Terms are very useful, the real standout here is the extensive explanation of documentation styles. Four of the major styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, CBE) are represented here (divided by area: Humanities, Social Sciences, History, Sciences). Users can access examples of each type of citation using drop down menus or see the styles “in action?by perusing sample papers written in each style. The research guides are basic, but solid. This site is an excellent resource for anyone who uses one of the major citation styles as well as for students who need basic assistance in starting their research.

ScienceDaily Magazine
Dan Hogan, Editor
Reviewed 9 March 2004
This site will serve you well whether you are a high school student assigned to report on a current science topic or are just interested in information on recent scientific developments. The home page provides headlines and links to the day’s top science news stories, as well as links to major subject areas in science, health, and computing. Sources, along with links to original news releases, are given for all articles; articles can be printed or emailed. Also available is an encyclopedia containing definitions and information drawn from the Wikipedia Web site ( ) Clicking on the Wikipedia links will take you to the Wikipedia site, where you can view the information in a variety of other languages including German, Spanish, French, and simplified English.

Barnes & Noble Learning Network
Reviewed March 2004 provides free access to online study guides in the areas of literature, the arts and sciences. While Sparknotes began as a site offering guides to literary classics (featuring summaries, plot analysis, character lists, themes and motifs,  la Cliff Notes), the collection has grown to include subject areas like health, nutrition, computer science, and biography. Major works can be sorted by author or title. Information about how to cite Sparknotes is also readily available on the site. A recent addition is an online test preparation area. While Sparknotes also offers the guides in print format to those who wish to purchase them from Barnes and Noble, the majority of the information is free, and is easy to navigate making it an excellent web site for students and researchers alike.

The Straight Dope
Cecil Adams, The Chicago Reader
Reviewed 6 March 2004
Once referred to as “possibly the world's greatest reference librarian?(American Libraries, February 1995 page146), Cecil Adams has been answering questions via his alternative newspaper column, “The Straight Dope,?since 1973. This online archive includes most of the questions and answers from the past quarter century. Entertaining and informative, Cecil over the years has answered questions like: Why do wintergreen Life Savers spark when crunched? What are the real lyrics to "Louie Louie"? and How do you become a United Nations weapons inspector? The archive is keyword searchable, and the last four years of columns can be browsed by date.

Thomas Publishing Company
Reviewed 25 March 2004
Thomas Register, a searchable database of North American manufacturing companies and products, contains entries for more than 173,000 U.S. and Canadian companies, over 152,000 brand names, as well as links to over 8,000 online supplier catalogs and Web sites. Users can search by company, product, service, trade or brand name; and products are also indexed using over 72,000 product heading classifications to help users to define their searches. Once users have selected product headings and viewed the listings of companies within those headings, they can refine their searches by adding additional keywords or by limiting the results to a particular state or province. Results contain brief company profiles, and links to online catalogs, when available. Thomas Register is an invaluable resource for finding product suppliers and useful for locating manufacturing companies, distributors and suppliers.

University of Michigan Documents Center
Grace York, University of Michigan
Reviewed 7 March 2004
The Documents Center, the Statistical Resources1 section of which was featured in the 2001 MarsBest list2, is one of the best gateways for government information on the web today. Geared to students and the general public, the Documents Center has a search engine and topical links to connect users with a wide array of government information from federal, state, local, and international sources. The comprehensiveness and ease of use make it superior to many of the gateways provided by the federal and state governments. Users looking for a central reference point for government documents will find this site invaluable.

U.S. Copyright Office
United States Copyright Office
Reviewed 9 March 2004
This site provides one-stop shopping for copyright information complete with all the forms and processing instructions for obtaining copyright protection. Information regarding copyright law and practices is provided in clear detail, including the complete text of the Copyright Office’s Circulars, Brochures, and Factsheets. In addition, a catalog of copyright records is searchable back to 1978. Patrons may also submit an online request for a cost estimate for a search of all Copyright Office records, including earlier records not available online. The forms and basic instructions are also provided in Spanish.

The Valley of the Shadow
Edward L. Ayers
Reviewed 8 March 2004
The Valley of the Shadow looks at the life of residents in Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, chronicling their experience of the American Civil War. Intended for students and teachers at both the secondary and college levels, the Valley of the Shadow provides a hypermedia archive of primary sources for a social history of these communities from 1859 through the Reconstruction period. The types of sources that are available include letters, diaries, newspapers, military records, photographs, church records, census records, and pensions. As a resource to explore the first-hand experience of the Civil War from the point of view of both the South and the North, the Valley of the Shadow is indispensable.

Where to find MSDS [Materials Safety Data Sheets] on the Internet
Dr. Rob Toreki, Interactive Learning Paradigms Incorporated
Reviewed 25 March 2004
Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are an essential resource for those working with hazardous chemicals and include physical and chemical characteristics, hazards, safe handling, emergency and first aid procedures and more. “Where to Find MSDS on the Internet?provides descriptions of and links to over 100 free MSDS collections available on the Internet. The sites are divided into general, government and nonprofit agencies, chemical manufacturers and suppliers, pesticides, and miscellaneous sites. The site also includes an MSDS FAQ, a glossary of common MSDS terms, over 325 relevant government regulations, suppliers and more supplementary material. There is some advertising, but it does not detract from a highly useful guide for locating free MSDS on the Internet.