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 visit Google (www.google.com), the best general-interest Web search engine. But despite its sophisticated search technology that helps you locate relevant information, Google can still be too scattershot of an approach when fact checking.
Nothing beats an almanac for quick facts on everyday items, and nothing beats 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, not to mention a dictionary, concise encyclopedia and atlas.
For more meaty material, you should surf to a full-fledged online encyclopedia. Britannica Online (www.britannica.com) includes the full text of Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the world's most respected encyclopedias, 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, with full access costing $10 per month or $70 per year.
Though they're more concise, other excellent online encyclopedias include MSN Encarta (www.encarta.msn.com) and Encyclopedia.com.
Encarta, however, can be overloaded and slow, and some of its articles require you to purchase 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, with a subscription costing only $25 per month or $125 per year.
The best biographical encyclopedia offered on the Web is Biography.com (www.biography.com), with more than 25,000 articles on both current and historical figures.
If it's word wisdom you're after, Dictionary.com offers a dictionary and thesaurus as well as translation tools for Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese. It also includes links to medical, science and other dictionaries. More comprehensive translation site is AltaVista's Babelfish (www.world.altavista.com/tr). It handles the above languages plus Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
Another good word site is YourDictionary.com. Along with English and foreign language dictionaries and various thesauri, it provides links to 60 specialized glossaries, from business and computing to law and medicine.
Say you come across an acronym that you can't make sense of. Acronym Finder (www.acronymfinder.com) offers definitions of more than 242,000 acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms. If it's technology related, CMP's TechEncyclopedia (www.techweb.com/encyclopedia) may be an even better choice, with 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 (www.howstuffworks.com) provides descriptions, diagrams and photos of more than 2,500 devices and processes in categories from automotive and electronics to health and money.
If it's a statistic you need, check out Statistics.com. You'll find numbers from government and other sources on a range of different topics, though you'll be more likely to find regularly published data there than private market research. Another good site is the University of Michigan's Statistical Resources on the Web (www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/stats.html).
Two excellent Web sites for checking general health information are the Harvard University-affiliated InteliHealth (www.intelihealth.com) and MayoClinic.com. RxList (www.rxlist.com) and the National Library of Medicine's Medline Plus Drug Information (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginformation.html) both provide information about brand name and generic pharmaceutical drugs.
A number of sites compile links of reference materials. The best overall is the University of Michigan's Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org). There you'll find links to almanacs, calendars, dictionaries, style and writing guides, quotations, biographies, encyclopedias, atlases, books, magazines and newspapers, among other materials.
Another good general-reference site is Researchville (www.researchville.com). It conveniently lets you do "meta searching" of multiple sources at once with just a single query, though 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 is a fairly useless site, 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." For more information, e-mail Reid at email@example.com or visit www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.