This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Electronic Highways

Published: January 27, 2005

Quality reference sites available online

Every year members of the Reference and User Services Association of the American Library Association recognize exceptional "no-fee" sites on the World Wide Web. These are sites that receive the "reference librarian seal of approval," so to speak. The 2004 listing ( has just been published and includes 30 authoritative, well-organized, and user-friendly sites that will answer all types of information queries.

Many of the "five-star sites" are produced by the U.S. government, including the Board Governors of the Federal Reserve System's ( home page, the National Institutes of Health's Household Products Database (, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plants Database ( and the U.S. Copyright Office ( Web site. Thus, a cybersurfer can find information on "Protecting Yourself from Overdraft and Bounced-Check Fee," "Keys to Vehicle Leasing: A Quick Consumer Guide" and "66 Ways to Save Money" on the Federal Reserve System's Consumer Information ( page. Using the Household Products Database, quickly find the contents, health effects and safe-handling instructions for everything from antifreeze to ferret ear cleaner to bowling alley wax to bubble bath and much more. The Plants Database offers information on every imaginable plant type in the U.S., from invasive weeds to ornamental flowers. Especially interesting are the guides to culturally significant plants prepared with the cooperation of Native American tribal groups. And, the Copyright Office has an informative Frequently Asked Questions ( page that leads to answers to questions such as:

  • How do I protect my recipe?

  • Can I copyright the name of my band?

  • How do I protect my sighting of Elvis?

  • Can I register a diary I found in my grandmother's attic?

  • Does copyright protect architecture?

  • Can I get a star named after me and claim copyright to it?

Other non-government sites considered to be among the best of the no-fee Web include American Women's History (, (, Research and Documentation Online ( and The Straight Dope ( The American Woman's History site functions as a research guide. Its strength is leading researchers-from serious scholars to undergraduate students-to primary sources on the Internet that are categorized into 75 subfields, such as aviation, culinary history, film, health, Jewish women, labor unions, prostitution and witchcraft. presents "ask the experts" with such frequently asked questions as "What is the opposite of hibernation?" and "Are there words that contain the letter 'q' without a 'u' following it?" Research and Documentation Online is noteworthy for displaying sample research papers written and formatted according to four major style manuals: APA, MLA, Chicago, and CBE. The Straight Dope is a well-regarded and highly informative column written by Cecil Adams and published in alternative newspapers in a variety of U.S. cities. Adams has been answering what we librarians call "reference questions" since 1973 and his Web site is brimming with those questions we all ponder from time to time. For example:

  • How is an unassisted triple play accomplished in baseball?

  • Does it take fewer muscles to smile than to frown?

  • How do you "corn" beef?

  • Why don't fish crash into the side of the fishbowl?

  • Is the Molson's beer sold in the U.S. watered down?

  • What does OK stand for?

The University Libraries Web site ( also has a fine array of high-quality reference Web sites to answer your factual questions. Go to our Web Reference Sources ( page and you will see a range of categories including, among many others, "almanacs & quick facts," "awards & prizes," "countries, states & cities," "dictionaries & languages," quotations" and "telephone & zip directories." Don't find what you need? Just go to our Ask Us ( page. We'll be glad to help.

—Gemma DeVinney, University Libraries