Fun and Handy Reference Sites That Rock!
We think the World Wide Web is like a huge treasure hunt in the biggest maze in the galaxy ( Pirates of the Caribbean meets Harry Potter meets Star Wars). But unlike a maze, there aren’t any dead ends. Even our least fruitful Internet searches often result in our finding a website that is cool or useful (or both). When we find one of these sites, we like to slap it into our Bookmarks or Favorites folder—where we sometimes forget about it until we rediscover it by chance much later. Then there are the websites we use more than any others: the reference sites. It’s not all about Google, people! There actually are websites that make your search easier and give you better results than the wild hits search engines often produce.
You already know about megareference sites like Findlaw, Wikipedia, and About.com. And while you could argue that most websites are “reference” sites, these sites are right handy (as we say in our neck of the woods) and some are just plain fun. Some have been around for a long time; others are newer (but we hope they stick around).
Let’s begin with the mother of all reference sites, Refdesk.com. It may not be as well known and popular as the first three sites we noted, but this site bills itself quite immodestly as “the Single Best Source for Facts” and, frankly, after anyone visits it, they will find it hard to disagree. Founded in 1995, this site is quite likely the oldest Web reference site that is still incredibly useful and valuable today. For sites to be included by Refdesk, they need to be free, accurate, objective, clear, and have the author’s or publisher’s credentials available for verification. What else could you possible want from a reference site?
How do we even begin to describe the range of reference links provided by Refdesk? Well, let’s start with a traditional media form, the newspaper. Whether you’d like to see the websites for newspapers published in Indiana (54), India (23), or Indonesia (9), you can find the lists of newspaper links in seconds on Refdesk. They may publish all or only part of their content online, but Refdesk is the path to finding any newspaper site in seconds.
But newspapers are only the beginning. Almost any collection of facts you can imagine may be located from Refdesk. Features include links to news photos and stories, photos of the day, Daily Diversions, online phone directories, area code and zip code finders, calendars, calculators, dictionaries, government sites, the Kelly Blue Book, Robert’s Rules of Order, maps, and many other reference sources. In other words, if you are only going to add one link to your collection from all of the reference sources we are providing to you, Refdesk is probably it.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia anyone can edit, is without a doubt the largest free online reference resource. The fact that anyone can edit it and a couple of well-publicized Wikipedia hoaxes have led many lawyers to classify Wikipedia as unreliable when nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, the vast number of Wikipedia users mean that the resource is self-correcting. While someone might edit an entry in a way most of us would view as untrue, it is likely that it would be edited again by another Wikipedia user within seconds. For high tech terms or popular culture terms, there may be no better quick reference resource. If you want to see every song that made number one each week on the Billboard 100 for a given year or a recap of the 2000 NCAA football season, Wikipedia should be your first stop. And even though you might still feel uncomfortable citing Wikipedia in a brief (we might, too), many court opinions have included citations to Wikipedia. (See this January 2007 New York Times article on that topic.)
There are lots of uses for Wikis. See, for example, wikiHow, the How-to Manual you can edit.
Thomas has been around since 1995, but we still meet lawyers who haven’t heard of it. So here’s a refresher of some of its offerings: bills, resolutions, activity in Congress, the Congressional Record, Committee information, treaties, and government resources. For most small firm lawyers, the Bill search is the most useful feature. The search screen is on the home page where you can’t miss it. While we’re on the subject of Thomas, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the Library of Congress site. You can use the “Ask a Librarian” service, read about preserving your precious documents and photos (even when flood damaged), and hop over to the Law Library of Congress.
Once the pride and joy of homes across America, the Encyclopedia Britannica online offers an exciting alternative to the dusty (and quickly outdated) print volumes. One cool feature we like is the “This Day in History” video each day. But Britannica isn’t the only game in town. Encyclopedia.com provides users with more than 57,000 frequently updated articles from the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Each article is enhanced with links to newspaper and magazine articles as well as pictures and maps provided by HighBeam Research. The home page features a hit list of articles that delve deeper into today’s headlines. Search articles by keyword or browse easily from the A to Z list. If your search yields a magazine or newspaper article not included in the thousands of free ones, you can get it for a fee by subscribing to HighBeam Research service.
We don’t know about you, but the last time we picked up a bound dictionary the Internet was down. With all the great choices online, and the speed with which we can look words up, why would we choose a book version? For starters, there’s OneLook. Think of this website as a search engine for words and phrases or a portal for dictionaries. If you have a word for which you’d like a definition or translation, it will quickly shuttle you to the web-based dictionaries that define or translate that word. If you don’t know how to spell the word, it will help you do that too. No word is too obscure: more than five million words in more than 900 online dictionaries are indexed by the OneLook ® search engine.
If that Black’s Law Dictionary is getting heavy for you, consider one of the online legal dictionaries. There’s Findlaw’s Legal Dictionary which provides the searchable Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law (1996) (also available at http://dictionary.reference.com/legal/.) For basic legal definitions (handy for explaining to laypersons), Wex, from Cornell University Law School is one of our favorites.
If you are not LOL while others are ROTFL at the latest text message on your cell phone or instant message from a colleague, head over to Netlingo.com. It could be you just need a short course in net lingo, including commonly used acronyms and emoticons. At least you’ll know if someone just called you a bad name. For a serious glossary of “Computer Oriented Abbreviations and Acronyms,” try Babel. According to the website author, he became frustrated while reading anything pertaining to computers with all the abbreviations and acronyms used but not explained. Don’t be fooled by the plain Jane looks: this list is comprehensive. On the day we checked, it was 98 print pages long.
If you are searching for the proper way to construct a sentence, venture over to Bartleby.com. While Bartleby primarily features the text of books that are, ahem, a little long in the tooth, some books age better than others. From time to time, we actually use Bartleby for English usage, style and composition www.bartleby.com/usage/. In particular, we like the American Heritage ® Book of English Usage , 1996; The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993; and the 1918 edition of Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.
Snopes is not the only website dedicated to debunking Internet hoaxes. But after a head-to-head comparison with some other sites, we have decided that its thoroughness is unrivaled. With election season upon us, there has been a noticeable up-tick in the number of political emails littering our mailboxes. Using several of these as our test cases, we compared Snopes to TruthOrFiction.com and About.com. While the basic “truth” was uncovered in all, Snopes’ research was far more exhaustive and well-documented than the other two. We also find it to be relatively uncluttered to look at and easy to use.
Did you know that The Bluebook, A Uniform System of Citation is now in its eighteenth printing? At least, that is what we hear. Our copies from law school are long gone or dog-eared, and for some reason, we are loathe to buy new ones. That’s where Basic Legal Citation comes in. For most of our purposes (let’s face it, we aren’t writing many Supreme Court briefs these days), the online citation guides we find are sufficient. (Jurisdictional rules vary as to required citation form.)
All in all, these are a few of our favorite websites—ones we use on a regular basis. So get out of your search engine rut! Or at the very least, type “reference websites” in your search engine. You are sure to see the American Library Association’s Index of Best Free Reference Web Sites.
Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He served as chair of the ABA TECHSHOW™ 2005. Calloway publishes the weblog, Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips, at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com, and was coauthor of the book, Winning Alternatives to the Billable Hour. He serves on the GP|Solo Division Technology Board. Courtney Kennaday has been the practice management advisor of the South Carolina Bar since 2002. Her PMAP (Practice Management Assistance Program) web pages are among the most visited on the SC Bar website and were recently ranked number five by the ABA in the top six best state bar resources in the country. One of her favorite things to do is to talk about law office technology.
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