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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 018-123-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Education and Training
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 123.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Updating reference 101: free searchable bibliographic tools on the Web

Susan S. Lazinger
School of Library
Archive and Information Studies
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


1. Introduction

During the summer prior to the opening of the academic year 1997-1998, a decision was made to undertake a reengineering of the required first-year course in reference at the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies. The overhauling of the course was intended to replace a significant percentage of the printed sources previously taught with online sources that could be found on the World Wide Web and which served approximately the same purpose as the printed sources. The decision to add bibliographic tools on the Web to the pamphlet of reference sources we distribute to the students in our basic reference course was based on two goals: (1) to familiarize our students with available reference sources on the Web, and (2) to make them aware that while classic reference sources in print, CD-ROM or online format are of undeniably reliable quality, there are some free reference tools on the Web which can be used to replace both established print/CD-ROM sources and Web sources for which there is a charge.

We decided to limit our list to bibliographic tools which met the following criteria: (1) individual sites/databases/servers, (2) free of charge, and (3) indexed so they could be searched by various keywords or by category (i.e., alphabetically, choosing a letter) without linking to additional sites first. Surfing the Web failed to retrieve such a list: all the reference sites were a mixed bag of links to lists and single titles, but none of them answered all of the above criteria. Therefore, we compiled a list from existing lists and divided them by the same categories as our list of printed/CD-ROM sources: General Guides to Reference Sources; Library and Information Science Sources; Universal Bibliographies: Catalogs of National Libraries and Union Catalogs; Retrospective and Current National and Trade Bibliographies; Bibliographic Tools for Book Selection and Acquisition; Indexes to Journal Articles; Current Awareness Services; Encyclopedias; International Biography; and Special Guides and Yearbooks. In the following sections we will both describe the free searchable databases we located on the Web while "Updating Reference 101", and cite the printed sources they were used to replace in our course.

2. General Guides to Reference Sources

"The Virtual Reference Desk" (1) is the one exception to our keyword-searchable-or-indexed site criterion (3). It is essentially an unindexed, randomly-arranged set of links to general reference sources. It was used to supplement, in this case, rather than replace general guides to reference sources such as Balay's Guide to Reference Books (2) or Walford's Guide to Reference Material . (3) The coverage of the "Virtual Reference Desk" is both far less comprehensive than these classic general reference guides and far more mass media-oriented, including news sites and traffic reports, as well as dictionaries and encyclopedias in a variety of disciplines.

3. Library and Information Science Sources

We had several dictionaries of terms in Library and Information Science and in Information Technology on our list of sources. While we did not locate an adequate substitute for print publications of this type that are specifically for librarians, such as Harrod's Librarian's Glossary,(4) the PCWebopaedia,(5) described onsite as "the #1 online encyclopedia and search engine dedicated to computer technology", seemed to us to offer an adequate, and more up-to-date, free online substitute for publications such as Cawkell's Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Information technology and Systems.(6)

4. Universal Bibliographies: Catalogs of National Libraries and Union Catalogs

We continually emphasized to our students that the free bibliographic tools on the Web, while adequate for current material, rarely approach the retrospective depth of their print counterparts. Examples of this phenomenon can be seen in the free online version of the OPACs of the Library of Congress and of The British Library. They certainly do not replace either the Library of Congress's National Union Catalog, pre-1956 Imprints (7) or the British Library's General Catalogue of Printed Books to 1975.(8) However, they do offer a convenient online substitute for current and some retrospective files. The Library of Congress Catalogs (9), as described on the site include: FILES: books, serials, music and sound recordings, cartographic materials, visual materials, computer files, manuscripts, thesauri of names and subjects, in-process books, NUC 1982-1993, PreMARC. The British Library describes the coverage and services offered by its online catalog, called OPAC97, (10) as follows: "This free service will allow you to find out what material is held in the major Reference and Document Supply collections of the British Library. In many cases it will also be possible to request copies of document supply material from the Library's Document Supply Centre (BLDSC) at Boston Spa." In addition to these online versions of these two great printed national catalogs, Gabriel, Gateway to Europe's National Libraries, (11) offers free online access to the rich catalogs of many of Europe's other national libraries, although some of the libraries listed require a password for access.

5. Retrospective and Current National and trade Bibliographies

We replaced our entire list of printed national bibliographies and trade bibliographies, from the British National Bibliography and the various national and subject volumes from Bowker's Books in Print series, with several of the largest and most inclusive online bookstores. Spot checks showed that these very large online stores, such as Amazon.com include not only an overwhelming percentage of publications currently in print, but also information on forthcoming publications. Both BarnesandNoble.com (12) and Amazon.com (13) advertise themselves as the world's largest online bookshops. Our educated guess is that Amazon.com, which links automatically to IBS:Bookshop.co.uk (14) [author's note: IBS stands for "Internet Book Shop"-sl] if the publication searched is not found, actually is the largest. IBS:Bookshop.co.uk more modestly claims that it is Europe's largest online bookshop. The only volume of the Books in Print series which Bowker offers without charge on the Web, Books Out-of-Print, Internet Edition, (15) is not available for free to anyone requesting a password.

6. Bibliographic Tools for Book Selection and Acquisition

For more than 90 years, Booklist has been the librarian's leading choice for reviews of the latest books and (more recently) electronic media. Every year they review nearly 4,000 books for adults, more than 2,500 titles for children, more than 500 reference books and electronic reference tools, and 1,000 other audiovisual materials. The corresponding web site, also called Booklist, (16) is designed to introduce Booklist to a new group of readers and to provide current subscribers with additional services and points of access. By clicking on the appropriate text, you can examine a current selection of reviews, enjoy a wealth of feature articles, or consult a newly developed cumulative index not available in the print Booklist. The Book Review Corner is an Amazon.com (17) associate bookstore, which means that if you so wish you can purchase the books reviewed here directly from Amazon.com. Links are provided in the reviews themselves, covering: Fiction, Science, Politics, Biography, Religion, Language, Martial Arts, Miscellaneous.

7. Indexes to Journal Articles

The many printed indexes to journal articles in various fields, such as Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, Humanities Index, Social Science Index, British Humanities Index, and in the LIS field, Library Literature, undoubtedly offer a depth of coverage in their individual subjects that cannot be equalled in any free online bibliographic tool. Having made that disclaimer, Carl's UnCover (18) covers a large enough percentage of the current popular and scholarly periodical literature to answer many, if not most, of a reference librarian's requests. UnCover is a database of current article information taken from well over 17,000 multidisciplinary journals. UnCover contains brief descriptive information for over 7,000,000 articles which have appeared since Fall 1988.

8. Current Awareness Services

The Current Contents series, like the Books in Print series, offers a breadth and depth of coverage in its printed and CD-ROM formats that cannot be equalled in any free Web site. Here again, however, what is available free in the Web equivalent is nonetheless a large and growing coverage of tables of contents of important periodicals in a variety of fields. ContentsSearch (19) , formerly ESToC (Elsevier Science Tables of Contents), is offered as part of Elsevier's Alerting Services. It provides online tables of contents for more than 1,000 Elsevier Science journals. Coverage extends to issues published since January 1995. Tables of contents appear approximately six weeks post-publication.

9. Encyclopedias

A free online alternative to a general printed encyclopedia, Encyclopedia.com (20) was created by Infonautics Corporation to give Internet users a simple, one-stop site to begin their research and answer basic questions. Composed of high-quality articles from The Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Third Edition, the site links 17,000 diverse articles to the resources available on Infonautics' popular online research service. It is the general online encyclopedia to which My Virtual Reference Desk links.

10. International Biography

We located two good international biography databases free on the Web, the first of which claims to base many of its entries on the print version of the Cambridge Biographical Dictionary. (21) The new expanded Biography (22) database puts over 20,000 of the greatest names, past and present, at your fingertips. Click on a letter, or enter a name in the box to discover who they were, what they did, and why. You can also choose from an alphabetical listing. Biographical Dictionary (23) includes more than 22,000 notable men and women who have shaped our world from ancient times to the present day. The dictionary can be searched by names, birth years, death years, positions held, professions, literary and artistic works, miscellaneous achievements, and other keywords.

11. Special Guides and Yearbooks

As a feasible free online replacement to World Almanac and Book of Facts (24) we located the CIA's World Factbook (25) , which gives very detailed statistical (and graphical) information on countries in the following geographic regions:

Our search for a suitable site to replace American Universities and Colleges (26) demonstrates the well-known and lamentable volability of free Web resources. We found an excellent site called American Colleges and Universities at http://www.selu.com/-bio/colleges/index.html, and used it while teaching the course. As home pages are found for American Universities (27) granting bachelor or advanced degrees, they are added here, one page per university. They may be department or college level pages if the University doesn't have a home page. In the case of multiple non-home pages for a University, one page is chosen, usually because it is interesting or provides good access to other web sites at the same university. College and University Home Pages - Alphabetical Listing (28) now has over 3,000 entries. All schools are currently arranged alphabetically. A geographical listing is available as well. You can also link to differently-organized listings of the same file: Full List of Universities and Geographical Listings of Universities. There are several Web sites which can serve as substitutes for such print publications as Museums of the World (29) or Directory of Museums. (30) Probably the best Museum site, however, is the Metropolitan Museum's Museum Resources. (31) This page offers the most comprehensive collection of online museums in the world. They have divided the resources into over 160 different categories. In addition, there is a registration form on the site for anyone who would like to add another museum resource to this list, so it is constantly expanding.

Finally, a fine free online replacement for The Foundation Directory (32) on our list of printed resources was Foundations Online. (33) Produced by the Northern California Community Foundation, Inc., this directory of Charitable Grantmakers is admirably complete and highly useful for anyone seeking funding in nearly any area. You can browse the directory, pick a listed foundation, search any organization's Information Page or search any organization's Home Page. Home Pages may contain downloadable information such as grant applications, periodical and financial reports, and e-mail capabilities.


The list of free, searchable bibliographic tools on the Web with which we updated our basic reference course is not exhaustive, and like any list of Web sites, must be constantly updated. Between the time the course was taught this year and this paper written a few months later, several of the sites we introduced in the course and gave exercises in, had already disappeared from the Web. For the most part, however, they were replaced with other similar sites. Teaching students the technique of finding and using free online reference tools is the principle idea of this approach, just as teaching students to find and use print resources, rather than simply to acquaint them with specific and changing titles, has always been the primary goal of all basic reference courses. The editions of print titles change, the Web sites come and go. The knowledge gained in familiarizing themselves with the online sites and comparing them with the classic print resources stays with the students throughout their careers.


  1. The Virtual Reference Desk, http://www.refdesk.com.

  2. Guide to Reference Books, 11th ed., ed. by Robert Balay(Chicago: ALA, 1996).

  3. Walford, A.J. , Guide to Reference Material, 6th ed. (London: Library Association, 1993-1995), 3 vols.

  4. Harrod, Leonard Montague, Harrod's Librarians Glossary: 9000 Terms Used in Information Management, Library Science, Publishing, the Book Trades and Archive Management, 8th ed. (Aldershot, Hants: Gower, 1995).

  5. PCWebopaedia ,http://pcwebopedia.com/CD_1_Compact_Disc_Interactive.htm.

  6. Cawkell, A. E. , Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Information Technology and Systems (London: Bowker-Saur, 1993).

  7. National Union Catalog, pre-1956 Imprints (London 1968-1981), Supplement, 1980-1981, 754 vols.

  8. General Catalogue of Printed Books to 1975 London, 1979-1984), 256 vols.

  9. The Library of Congress Catalogs, http://lcweb.loc.gov/catalog.

  10. OPAC97, http://opac97.bl.uk.

  11. Gabriel, Gateway to Europe's National Libraries, http:www.konbib.nl/gabriel/en/opacs.html.

  12. BarnesandNoble.com, http://www.BarnesandNoble.com.

  13. Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com.

  14. IBS:Bookshop.co.uk, http://www.bookshop.co.uk.

  15. Books Out-of-Print, Internet Edition, http://www.bowker.com/bop/home/boop.html.

  16. Booklist, http://www.ala.org/booklist/.

  17. The Book Review Corner

  18. UnCover, http://uncweb.carl.org/.

  19. ContentsSearch, http://www.elsevier.nl/homepage/alert.htt.

  20. Encyclopedia.com, http://encyclopedia.com.

  21. Cambridge Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge, 1990).

  22. Biography, http://www.biography.com/find/find.html.

  23. Biographical Dictionary, http://www.s9.com/biography.

  24. World Almanac and Book of Facts (New York, 1968- ).

  25. World Factbook, http:www.odci.gov/cia/;publications/nsolo/wfb-all.htm.

  26. American Universities and Colleges (Washingon, 1928- ).

  27. American Universities, http://www.clas.ufl.edu/CLAS/american-universities.html.

  28. College and University Home Pages - Alphabetical Listing, http://www.mit.edu:8001/people/cdemello/univ.html.

  29. Museums of the World (Munchen, 1973- ).

  30. Directory of Museums (London, 1975- ).

  31. Museum Resources, http://wwar.com/museums.html.

  32. The Foundation Directory (New York, 1975- ).

  33. Foundations Online, http://www.foundations.org.