Best Free Reference Web Sites 2006
Eighth 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

AF: Acronym Finder
Mountain Data Systems, LLC
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

Developed by Mountain Data Systems, LLC, in cooperation with several other groups, AF: Acronym Finder describes itself as "The world's largest and most accurate human-edited dictionary of acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms." It currently contains over 475,000 entries covering fields such as information technology, business & finance, slang & pop culture, military & government, organizations & schools, and science & medicine. Searching by acronym or browsing by broad subjects are both available. It is possible to expand your search to Acronym Attic, containing almost 3 million entries. However, these have not been edited. This is a very useful resource for anyone trying to discover what particular acronyms represent.

American Rhetoric
Michael E. Eidenmuller
Reviewed: March 8, 2006

American Rhetoric combines THE ONLINE SPEECH BANK and THE TOP 100 SPEECHES into one easy-to-use, searchable reference database for all ages. According to the website, the online speech bank is an index to and growing database of 5000+ full text, audio and video (streaming) versions of public speeches, sermons, legal proceedings, lectures, debates, interviews and other recorded media events. There are approximately 604 active links and are arranged alphabetically by first name and checked for errors at least once every two weeks. According to leading scholars of American public address, the top 100 speeches in this web site are an index to and partial database of full text transcriptions of the 100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century.

Art & Architecture Thesaurus
Paul Getty Trust
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

AATO contains more than 125,000 terms covering “fine art, architecture, decorative arts, archival materials, and material culture” and is more than a thesaurus, including brief definitions (the searchable “notes” field) and an impressive, easily navigable hierarchical tree. Extensive and still growing, it includes historic and contemporary terms. Any concept can list numerous variants (e.g., alternate spellings, plural form, synonyms) and may include brief citations for bibliographic sources and contributors. Every page includes a link to generate a printer-friendly version; a thorough help page is always available. AATO’s sister databases from Getty, Union List of Artist Names Online ( (220,000+ terms) and Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names Online ( (1,000,000+ terms), are similarly designed. This comprehensive web resource offers an excellent introduction to art terms.

BBC News
BBC News
Reviewed: March 5, 2006

BBC News is the largest news broadcaster in the world, with more than 2,000 journalists in 48 bureaus around the globe. Visitors to this site will find extensive, in-depth coverage of the world’s news which strives to be “impartial, fair, and accurate,” and which offers an alternate perspective to that of American-based news media. Sections of the site focus on world regions, business, health, science and nature, technology, and entertainment. Articles are well illustrated, and often supplemented by links to audio and video coverage. Articles are also accompanied by links to older, related reports furthering understanding of complex issues. News is available in 33 languages. Users can download a desktop alert application, and can subscribe to email updates and RSS feeds.

The Big Cartoon Database
Dave Koch, The Big Cartoon Database (
Reviewed: February 22, 2006; revised May 1, 2006

Produced since 1998, The Big Cartoon Database currently features 70,298 cartoons from film and television, 4,965 series, 26,294 registered users and 4,210 reviews. Cartoons can be accessed by studio, an Academy Award® winning classic cartoon link or by a basic or advanced keyword search area. Detailed entries include a brief history of the cartoon, a synopsis, cast and crew, production notes, user reviews and a cartoon forum for registered users to discuss a particular cartoon. Although it does provide a cartoon pictures link, original cartoons, however, are not available for viewing or downloading on this web site. The Big Cartoon Database is the definitive web compendium for anyone interested in the history of animation.

Constitution Finder
University of Richmond
Reviewed March 17, 2006

Easy to use and up to date, "this database offers constitutions, charters, amendments, and other related documents. Nations of the world are linked to their constitutional text posted somewhere on the Internet." Constitution Finder’s simply designed web site features a well placed pull-down index to over 200 countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Constitutions are offered in original languages and English (and sometimes Spanish) translations. Though not exhaustive, historical constitutions and related documents are also available.

Crash Course in Copyright
University of Texas System, Georgia Harper
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

Created by Georgia K. Harper, lawyer and copyright expert for the University of Texas System, this very comprehensive site covers copyright and fair use as well as the broader area of intellectual property for creators and users. Content includes the background of fair use, using multimedia, digital content in libraries, copyright management, licensing resources, online presentations, a copyright tutorial, and links to additional information available elsewhere. Although focused in the academic area and to University of Texas students, faculty, and staff in particular, the content is useful for anyone with questions pertaining to copyright, fair use, and intellectual property.

Documenting the American South
University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Reviewed: March 9, 2006

Documenting the American South is a large-scale digital publishing initiative that features primary resources in history for the study of the history, literature, and culture of the American South. It is an indispensable resource for study of the Civil War and the Antebellum South, African-American history, and Southern literature. It includes public domain full-text books, pamphlets, personal correspondence, slave narratives, diaries, and oral histories. Documenting the American South remains an essential electronic research tool for anyone seeking original and scholarly documentation about this region.

E-how, Inc.
Reviewed: March 12, 2006

Providing “clear instructions on how to do (just about) anything,” the E-how web site boasts of receiving “over four million visitors each month.” Its popularity is not difficult to understand. The web site’s instructions are easy to understand and follow. E-how covers a very wide variety of subjects ranging from how to play the kazoo, kiss on a date, create a tile mosaic, to how to fix your car. E-how’s users are encouraged to submit their suggestions on how to do anything via its wiki site ( The site is funded in part by advertisements via Google which are related to the subject being researched. E-how is recommended for anyone who has felt that with just a little knowledge and a little courage “I could do that myself.”

Encyclopedia of Chicago
The Chicago Historical Society, The Newberry Library and Northwestern University
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

This online counterpart to the print Encyclopedia of Chicago, published in 2004 by the University of Chicago Press, is a major reference resource for the history of the city of Chicago. The site takes advantage of the features of web publishing to enhance the presentation of this vast body of information. For instance, the extensive Entries index features thousands of clickable links to such topics as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicago Architecture, Al Capone and the White Sox. The web site also includes essays, maps, city plans, and topical galleries. Navigation is easy and fun. Contributors include many high profile Chicago area scholars. Ultimately, this electronic treasure is invaluable for anyone interested in Chicago or Midwest history.

Eternal Egypt
Egyptian Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage
Reviewed: March 14, 2006

Exploring “over five thousand years of Egyptian civilization,” this multimedia presentation offers cultural highlights, maps, timelines, and libraries and museums of information. Because of a partnership with IBM, the site is composed of “animations, virtual environments, remote cameras, three-dimensional models and more.” Richly colored, this site is easy to navigate, includes clear contact information, and is a uniquely complete resource. The Guided Tour, though it opens in a separate window, is an excellent introduction to all of the treasures in this site.

Center for International Business Education and Research, Michigan State University
Reviewed: March 3, 2006

This international business and country studies information portal, from the Center for International Business Education and Research, Michigan State University, provides access to over 5,000 Internet resources with annotations. Searchers can quickly locate country profiles by using the country drop-down menu or the visual region selection tool and can easily browse well-organized web bibliographies from the Resource Desk. The site is loaded with additional, valuable features, including the ability to register and to be part of a network of 18,000 business professionals.

How Products are Made
Thomson Gale
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

The 7-volume print set, How Products are Made, published by Thomson Gale from 1994 through 2002, now has an electronic counterpart. The user can search by keyword, browse each volume individually, or browse an alphabetical list of all entries from Accordion to Zirconium. Each entry includes understated advertising links related to the product, a background, perhaps a history, diagrams, the raw materials needed, the manufacturing process, quality control, the future of the product, and a short bibliography titled "Where To Learn More." The last section of each entry is User Contributions where users may submit comments about the article or additional information. This resource should be useful to all age levels needing information and diagrams about how things are made.

In the first person: An index to letters, diaries, oral histories, and other personal narratives
Alexander Street Press
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

The In the first person web site describes itself as an “In-depth index of more than 3,350 collections of personal narratives in English from around the world. It lets you keyword search more than 650,000 pages of full-text by more than 15,000 individuals from all walks of life. It also contains pointers to some 3,500 audio and video files and 30,000 bibliographic records.” What makes this resource particularly useful is the depth of indexing, allowing searches by personal characteristics, time frame, even witnesses to particular events. About 25 percent of the full-text content is restricted to paid subscribers but it also pulls together content from hundreds of authoritative free sites.

The Library of Congress (LOC)
The Library of Congress
Reviewed: March 3, 2006

Besides providing library catalogs and bibliographic information for books and resources held in worldwide libraries, this site serves as a portal to the LOC’s unique digitized collections and WEB resource directories. Important resources accessible from the top of the LOC homepage include: the American Memory and Exhibitions historic collections, the Global Gateway to multicultural information, and Thomas, which provides legislative information. This information-rich and well-designed homepage also showcases “Highlights From The Library,” such as the Song of America Tour and Today in History, as well as webcasts and noteworthy library news and events.

Merriam-Webster Online 
Merriam-Webster, Inc.
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

A searchable and browsable on-line dictionary and thesaurus for English, they are interconnected, offer audio pronunciation, etymologies, and occasional illustrations. Merriam-Webster Online also has free premium access (after viewing a brief ad) to electronic versions of their popular Collegiate series dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia; the Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged; French-English and Spanish-English dictionaries; an atlas; a style guide; and a medical dictionary. Basic access provides access to the “Word of the Day” and “Word for the Wise” features, word games and crossword puzzles, and “Learner’s Word of the Day” (for non-English speakers) and “Daily Buzzword” (for children). This web site is a great place for finding and using words.

Reviewed: March 13, 2006

Metacritic is a searchable database of individual reviews of film, video/DVD, television, music, books and games. The database can be searched by the title of a specific work, the name of an individual involved, a genre, or by "metascore," a number derived by Metacritic from a weighted formulation of rankings by individual reviewers. Metacritic takes into account the prestige of individual critics and publications in calculating weighted averages. Metascores are color-coded green (favorable), yellow (mixed or average), or red (unfavorable). Added features in the site allow easy determination of new releases with the most favorable reviews. Coverage of individual works includes a synopsis, information about its creator, publisher, distributor, or producer, technical information such as running time or number of pages, and excerpts from individual reviews.

National Atlas 
United States Department of the Interior
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

The National Atlas website is well organized and easy to navigate, placing maps by region as well as type. In addition to political/ geographic maps, it includes maps based on biology/wildlife, environment, agriculture, weather, and history. Also included are a map maker, printable maps, and dynamic maps—an example of which is the history of the invasive Zebra Mussel in the U.S. The site contains encyclopedia-style articles on map-making and the information contained in maps. The National Atlas is an outstanding example of a government website that places a large volume of knowledge at the user's fingertips.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)
National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services
Reviewed: March 3, 2006

This quality portal offers access to the combined medical information and scientific advances of NIH’s 27 highly regarded institutes and centers, including the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Human Genome Institute. Visitors can use this handy online medical reference to quickly access information by age groups, topics, and body locations and systems, as well as by institutes. Unique features accessible from the main site are the Talking Glossary of Genetic Terms providing text, audio, and explanatory diagrams, and the Household Products Database furnishing information about the composition and safety of household items. Additional Web resources and news items are provided throughout the portal’s pages.

National Weather Service 
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Reviewed: March 12, 2006

In addition to providing severe weather warnings, the National Weather Service provides detailed weather forecasts for cities, counties, and states in the U.S. as well as marine and aviation forecasts. Forecasts can be displayed in a number of different formats (i.e., text, digital, and graphical). The web site includes Doppler radar, satellite images, and air quality, river flooding, climate, and forecast maps. Travelers and those just curious about tomorrow’s weather will find this site useful.

Peterson’s Planner 
Thomson Peterson
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

The Peterson’s Planner web site is a searchable guide for choosing schools, from K-12 to college and from graduate schools to continuing education programs, even summer camps. Admission test preparation and financial aid planning are important elements available for both students and parents, along with information on study abroad programs and help for international students. Easy to navigate, the site offers program descriptions, school profiles, faculty and student information, and often links to the school’s own Website, admission application, and newspaper. This web resource offers one-stop shopping for educational choices and the steps needed to attend.

POTUS: Presidents of the United States 
Internet Public Library/School of Information University of Michigan
Reviewed: March 16, 2006

The POTUS site is part of the Internet Public Library (IPL) and is a quick biography source for all the presidents of the United States. Individual links to the different presidents provide basic biographical information, election results, cabinet member biographies, and notable events that occurred in each of these administrations. Additional links are provided for resources dealing with particular presidents and historical events that occurred during particular presidencies. This site is good for librarians in all settings that need to find fast information on U.S. presidents.

The Pulitzer Prizes 
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Reviewed: March 14, 2006

Beginning in 1917, and continuing to the present day, the Pulitzer Prize is generally awarded in 21 different areas of journalism and photography, including published books and music. Users can search or browse each year’s winners using the timeline at the top of each page, discover how the Prize winners are determined, and learn about the influential creator of the Prizes, Mr. Joseph Pulitzer. The home page is divided into four categories, Resources (with contact information), the Archive (of winners and finalists), History, and Forms (guidelines and entry forms). This well-designed page is useful for anyone interested in the Prizes or winners.

Theodric Technologies LLC
Reviewed: March 11, 2006

The “most comprehensive radio station search engine on the internet,” Radio-Locator links to websites of more than 10,000 radio stations throughout the world, as well as to streaming audio from over 2,500 of those stations. This attractive site is useful for anyone seeking stations from specific locations or with specific formats. Basic searches can be conducted by city, state or province, country, zip code, call letters, or format (Asian, college, jazz, news, public radio, etc.). Advanced searches allow sorting, and include additional criteria such as frequency and license status. Results are presented in a table, including call sign, frequency, signal strength, city, format, and audio stream availability. From the results table, users can easily link to stations’ websites and streams. 
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Reviewed: February 20, 2006

Created as a joint venture between the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Food and Drug Administration, the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Environmental Protection Agency,’s purpose is “to provide better service in alerting the American people to unsafe, hazardous or defective products.” The simply designed web site features six buttons on the following topics: Consumer Products, Motor Vehicles, Boats, Food, Medicine, Cosmetics and Environmental Products. Each button takes the user to the particular government agency responsible for reporting recalls on that subject area. Users can also search for recalls by keyword or recent recalls. Ultimately, remains the most comprehensive one-stop resource for locating recalls.

Standard and Poors, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Reviewed: March 11, 2006

Description: The Schoolmatters site allows “parents, educators and leaders to research information about public schools.” The site provides a simple to use interface to search for information and compare schools at the local, state, and national level. The results include tables and colorful graphs of school performance, staffing, and safety information as well as community demographics. Also included is a benchmarking tool, called Better Performers, which “allows you to find schools or districts in the state with higher performance than your school or district in the subject, grade level, and among the group of students you specify." A particular strength is the inclusion of numerous visually appealing graphs. This is an excellent place to start for anyone interested in comparing schools and communities.

Reviewed: March 11, 2006

Beautiful architectural drawings of thousands of tall buildings around the globe, contributed by members of the SkyscraperPage Illustrators Association, can be found on this site. Users can browse by city, country, or continent, or can use the sophisticated search form. Among the available search criteria are height, construction year, location, structure type, and status. Results can be sorted by multiple criteria. The site includes completed buildings, as well as those proposed, under construction, canceled, or destroyed. Drawings are initially displayed with basic building data. Clicking on a drawing results in detailed information being displayed, such as style, materials, floor area, cost, and building use. A lively discussion forum is also provided. Anyone interested in architecture will find this site addictive.

Urban Legends Reference Pages
Barbara and David P. Mikkelson
Reviewed: March 17, 2006

This searchable archive/repository offers insight to urban legends, “common fallacies, misinformation, old wives’ tales, strange news stories, rumors, celebrity gossip, and similar items”. Access is via a broad variety of topical headings or by basic keyword searching. Records include detailed descriptions of the item’s origin (sometimes including original text and images), its status (e.g., true, false, multiple, undetermined), and an evaluation. A brief bibliography is usually included with entries for support. Free access is also available to the site’s message boards. The site is fun to browse and great for checking the hoax status of many a forwarded e-mail message.

WebMD Health
WebMD, Inc.
Reviewed: March 9, 2006

Description: Although this site requires a free registration, and can be a bit overwhelming to navigate, it is still considered a leading authority reference resource for all things related to Health. According to the website, WebMD Health is a primary public portal created for consumers to help them take an active role in managing their health by providing objective healthcare and lifestyle information. Content offerings include access to health and wellness news articles and features, and decision-support services that help consumers make better informed decisions about treatment options, health risks and healthcare providers. The site provides access to detailed information on a particular disease or condition and symptoms. Consumers can locate physicians, store individual healthcare information, receive periodic e-newsletters on topics of individual interest, enroll in interactive courses and participate in online communities with peers. A keyword search box is available, as well as a topics guide for the top 12 health-related FAQs.