A Reference Desk to Call Your Own - How to Find Out Anything (2012)

How to Find Out Anything

5 A Reference Desk to Call Your Own

You may never have noticed this, but one thing is a constant in library design the world over: The shelves closest to the librarians’ desks are where they keep the reference books. It’s no coincidence, and there is no mystery about why reference books are stored up close. These are the sources librarians use most, and to save themselves long treks into the spider-filled recesses at the back of the stacks, they wisely keep them close at hand.

Reference resources are tomes or databases in which facts are gathered so that readers can look up information quickly; they are, by definition, authoritative, timely, and credible. For anyone who aspires to learn how to find out anything, cultivating an appreciation for the value of good reference materials is a must. Go-to reference works like dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases are trustworthy stockpiles of facts. These compendiums of useful data should be the constant companions of any researcher, student, reporter, writer, or information junkie. The best advice I can give you is to take a cue from sensible librarians everywhere and fashion a reference collection of your own.

The best advice I can give you is to take a cue from sensible librarians everywhere and fashion a reference collection of your own.

Libraries commit a substantial chunk of their budget to keeping those print volumes standing at attention at the reference desk for quick consultation. You can get yours mostly for free. At that price, there is no reason not to equip yourself with an extensive personal library. In just about every project, you’ll use reference titles constantly. Have them at your fingertips so that you can quickly find some pesky fact or verify a simple date. Because we are talking mostly about the online world here, a DIY reference library requires little more than a clear idea of what type of information you need to look up frequently, some time to track down resources that deliver the goods when you need to answer a question, and insatiable curiosity.

The easier it is to consult these sources, the better, so spend some time thinking about how to organize them in your browser’s “Favorites” or “Bookmarks” and then start loading in the URLs. Everyone’s list will be different, but at a minimum your reference library should contain:

· A dictionary and thesaurus

· An almanac

· A basic encyclopedia

· An atlas

· A directory of products and manufacturers

· Tables for equations, mathematics, and conversions

· A collection of quotations

· A basic history of the United States and the world

· A library catalog

· A searchable collection of classic literature

To help you stock your personal reference shelf, I recommend a source for each one these items, almost all of them free. After jump-starting your collection, we’ll look at some superb reference portals. These are sites stocked with thousands of links to fact-filled sites. These compilations of reference sites are terrific, and I cannot recommend them enough. We’ll wrap up the chapter by taking a look at how you can search out reference sources specific to your own research needs. In the meantime, let’s start with the basics.

Basic References


Topping every list of vital reference resources is a good online dictionary. I’m a big fan of YourDictionary.com. The site delivers not only a first-rate dictionary, with the expected definitions, etymologies, and links to synonyms but also a thesaurus and links to specialty dictionaries. It has glossaries to explain the opaque jargon from the worlds of finance and computer science as well as scientific and medical definitions. Best of all, YourDictionary.com solves that age-old grammar school head-scratcher: How do you look up the correct spelling of a word in the dictionary when you don’t know how to spell the word in the first place? Try wild card searching. (Is it “accommodate” or “accomodate”? Look it up by typing “acco**odate” to find out.) Spelling is not the only web-enhanced feature either. Click on the “Hear It” link to listen to a disembodied voice with perfect diction pronounce the defined word, relieving you of the burden of trying to puzzle out what all those arcane pronunciation symbols mean. (It’s RIB-ald, not RYE-bald.)

In the twenty-first-century world of texting shorthand, the acronym and abbreviation finder (click “Other Dictionaries”) will help you make sense of what your teenagers are saying as they wear their thumbs raw sending messages to their friends. “Other Dictionaries” also leads to an eclectic array of specialty dictionaries, covering topics such as idioms, golf, robotics, leather, and labor relations. And for the diligent writer who’s determined not to let a participle dangle or an infinitive split, dozens of articles on English grammar and usage will guide you effortlessly through the exciting world of expository writing. When it comes to language and word information, Your Dictionary.com is the best on the web. A Swiss Army knife for all things linguistic, this site is like having an entire wall full of books at the end of a hyperlink.


With a great dictionary now stowed in your personal reference collection, add an almanac, a glorious reference tool that’s indispensable for quick access to facts, figures, and obscure data. For most professional researchers, The World Almanac is the source for the course. This hefty collection of factual information gathered in one place can save hours of online searching. (I can’t repeat it enough times: Don’t go hunting for information yourself if someone has already found it for you!) You’ll find summaries of world news, biographies, arts and entertainment, and health and science to name a few. This one, however, is not an online giveaway. You’ll need to buy a print copy, but at less than $20, it’s a worthwhile purchase. If you’re in a book-buying mood, it wouldn’t hurt to spring for the Information Please Almanac to supplement the World Almanac. It’s filled with current facts and more U.S. materials than the world version.


In days past, no self-respecting library would open its door if it didn’t have a good, up-to-date atlas. Atlases are still important, but the days are over when an oversize book with maps of the nations of the world is the best way to find out where the cities of France are located. Now, of course, we have Google Maps, which serves simultaneously as an atlas, a road map, and tour guide. It features scaleable maps, driving or walking directions from virtually any point on earth to another one on the same contiguous land mass, and satellite pictures mixed in with street-level photographs. It’s a virtuoso performance of information organization and display. Download Google Earth, and you’ve got yourself a set of Cartier-level cartography that would have driven Magellan mad with envy.

The two Google geography products should serve to answer most basic questions, but the ambitious researcher might supplement the Google Maps and Google Earth collection with a number of other excellent geographic tools. Two resources for looking up place names in the United States are the USGS Geographic Names Information Service, with almost two million standardized names of places and geographic features, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s U.S. Gazetteer. And for anything else map related, the Arizona State University library has a terrific collection of geographic reference materials that should serve your world exploration needs perfectly. Remember too that specially designed atlases can indicate everything from the distribution of mineral deposits to agricultural growing regions. Check the Arizona State library site for pointers on using these single-purpose maps.

Demographic Information

Demographic information is always in demand, especially for business researchers. Say you have an idea to open a restaurant that would cater to families with young children. You’d want to know where you would find communities with a significant population of people with young children. To generate a demographic profile of towns, cities, and counties around the nation, use the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder. FactFinder takes the raw data collected from the decennial census and digests it into comprehensible reports and charts. For business and marketing purposes, the demographic data giveaway is a boon to researchers. But it’s not business researchers alone who can profit from FactFinder’s geographic, economic, and housing data. For the big statistical picture of the United States, this site deserves a special place in your reference toolkit. There invariably will come a time when you will need to get a sense of fundamental information about the population in the United States, such as average age or ethnic characteristics. A company planning to sell shoe styles that appeal to women aged thirty-five to fifty-five would be remiss in not checking on exactly how many potential customers live in a given city. FactFinder specializes in this type of information. Speaking of the Census Bureau, it once published the annual Statistical Abstract: The National Data Book, a collection of the charts and graphs from all the major government agencies. The book, alas, fell victim to budget cutting. The abstracts were a statistical digest to all the things that the federal government measures. Older editions can still serve as a guide to the many thousands of statistic reports from all over Uncle Sam’s bureaucratic estate.

To generate a demographic profile of towns, cities, and counties around the nation, use the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

So why can’t you just bookmark Wikipedia and be done with it? Because you’re smarter than that is why. While millions of misguided users obliviously feast on the easy-to-use Wikipedia entries, they do so in defiance of the site’s egregious shortcomings. These drawbacks invalidate it as a reliable source for a conscientious researcher. After all, the information is written by editors who in many instances have no professional credentials. In addition, the site is updated only when someone feels like it, and bias can easily enter into its seemingly impartial profiles of a subject. Better to bypass the easy, but suspect, pickings of Wikipedia and head instead to a long-trusted source with a history of accuracy and sober scholarship, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB). For concise explanations of complex subjects, encyclopedias are terrific. Frequently, an encyclopedia can jump-start your research by providing a nutshell view of the topic in question. Search for “mercury” and see two- and three-paragraph write-ups on the planet, the NASA program, the chemical, the Roman god, and the plant.

To Wikipedia’s credit, it outshines the donnish worthies when it comes to pop culture, passing fads, and ephemera. Its entry for “mercury” includes exhaustive references to, among many things, the car brand, the record label, antique airplanes, the lead singer from Queen, naval vessels, hockey teams, and H. L. Mencken’s magazine, all of which are MIA from the more high-toned encyclopedia.

The EB comes in two flavors, free and premium. The free service isn’t shabby, but the premium service, at just north of $100 a year for a subscription, is a bargain like you never saw. The EB drafts scholars, scientists, university professors, and others with totally ripped brains to write the articles. Right from the start, EB authors have more credibility than the average Wikipedia editor, whose CV may consist of little more than a browser and an afternoon to kill by typing up deep thoughts about Steely Dan.

Library Catalog

Don’t yawn just yet, because I am about to explain how a good library catalog is a near-perfect tool for finding experts. In any event, you are going to need access to a proper catalog to see what’s been written on the subject you are researching. No matter if you are browsing through the catalog of a small town library or the Library of Congress, the fundamental purpose of a catalog is to let you know what the library holds, searchable by the ever-eternal triumvirate of author, subject, and title. Today’s electronic catalogs are masterful indices that can deliver more information than you could possibly want on each item in the collection. So, by all means, use the library catalog for its original purpose: to find out if the library has a book on what you need to find.

A good library catalog is a near-perfect tool for finding experts.

The web has opened the door to using the average catalog in an entirely new way. It’s a database of experts. This makes perfect sense when you remember the cliché we use to indicate that someone knows a lot about something: “Oh, he wrote the book on it!” As with most clichés, there is a germ of truth in this one. If we buy the premise that an author is, by definition, an expert in his or her subject, it follows that the Library of Congress catalog is not only a list of everything that the library owns but is also a free guide that names the names of millions of people, dead or alive, who are experts in their fields. We will be liberal with the definition of expert, because not every book is a masterpiece, but the library catalog will quickly tell you who cares enough about a subject to write a book about it.

Say you need to locate an expert on some very specialized subject, like the history of geodesic domes or the mating habits of electric eels or how children acquire language skills. You could succumb to your natural urge to use Google as a way to find this presumed-to-exist expert—and if so, good luck to you. Or you could save yourself an aspirin-bottle’s worth of headache by first finding out who has written books about your subject. Once you’ve gotten an idea of who the relevant authors are, you’re halfway to having a quotable expert in your pocket. Authorship is like a union card for subject experts.

When you start your catalog browsing, set aside plenty of time for the task. You’ll be amazed at the breadth of information waiting for you, so don’t rush your research. I recommend the catalog from the Library of Congress for your first stop because it is the largest and most inclusive catalog in the world. The New York Public’s catalog is not exactly small potatoes either.

When searching, really turn your subject over thoroughly. What you want to do is identify (1) some books you might want to read and (2) the names of some authors you might want to contact for follow up questions. (Hint: Living authors are more helpful than dead ones, if only because they have email.) Search using synonyms, and click on an author’s name to find out what other books he has written. Think of your catalog searching time as a leisurely stroll through a particularly fascinating theme park. Take your time, and use your imagination. The library catalog, when used imaginatively, will no longer be merely a pedestrian search tool, but an invaluable aid for identifying experts. Looking through the catalog is better than Googling for an expert because you won’t have to slog through blog posts, news stories, and other distractions. The catalog is professionally edited, concise, and accurate. The information about these author-experts will be of much better quality than what you could find with a Google search alone.

Once you’ve diligently searched and come up with a list of titles and authors in whom you may be interested, the next step in the process of finding experts is to read the relevant books and, if you still have questions, to get in touch with the author. For contacting authors, my advice is twofold: search online to see if you can find an email address (see Chapter 7) or website for the author; if that doesn’t pan out, get in touch with the book publisher and ask them to forward your questions to the author. Except for some celebrated eccentrics like the late J. D. Salinger or Salman Rushdie, most writers would be thrilled to hear from their readers. Academic authors can usually be reached at their schools, institutional authors at their businesses, and modern ones through their websites. This is one of those cases where using a database like a library catalog in conjunction with Google is a beautiful and elegant way to find very specific information that you could not unearth by conducting an Internet search alone.

Products and Manufacturers

Although digital products are the current darlings of the economy, things fashioned from extruded plastic, bent metal, and sawn wood are still a very important part of the manufacturing world. If you need to contact a company that makes some quotidian product like zippers, then ThomasNet is where you’ll find the info. This unprepossessing site holds a masterfully designed database of company information that can provide the answer to questions like “Who makes left-handed scissors?” (Walter Stern Inc. of Port Washington, New York, for one) and “What company manufactures piano benches?” (the Georgia Chair Company, among others, is who). ThomasNet got its start as a multivolume set of books known as the Thomas Register, remarkable not only for the breadth of its directory coverage for manufacturers, but also for the books’ brilliant Kelly green covers. Even when you don’t have specific question in mind, it’s fun to browse the site just to see the range of very weird objects for sale. After all, someone has to make “getter pumps to pass current directly through titanium alloy in a vacuum to sublimate it.” ULVAC Technologies Inc., we salute you.


A pithy quote, an epigram, or a joke can sometimes sum up exactly what you need to say in a report, a speech, or a presentation. The collected wisdom of great writers who can express in five words what it takes the rest of us fifty to say is a very useful thing to have at your disposal. The Quotations Page will serve a modern audience well. (Also see Bartleby.com, discussed later in this chapter.)

Searchable Collection of Classic Literature

Although I sincerely wanted to keep this list of essential reference resources restricted to the best of breed, there were too many good selections to pick from, and, really, there is no good reason to be stingy with the picks. There are three worthy candidates for this category, all free, and all deserving of a place in your reference collection.

Project Gutenberg

Before there were Kindles, before there was Amazon.com, and before there were iPads, there was Project Gutenberg. Founder Michael Hart set about creating e-texts in the 1970s, long before the advent of the web and public access to the Internet. Today, more than 33,000 plain-text versions of books new and old are downloadable from the Gutenberg site, all of them free. The texts are fully functional but nothing fancy. Hart himself minces no words when he says his goal was to produce works that the average reader could enjoy. His goal was not to provide a perfect specimen of a book text that would pass muster with a scholar but rather a serviceable e-version of classic works. In that he has succeeded, and that makes this a keeper for your electronic reference shelf.


Another major reference source for classic literature and poetry is Bartleby.com, named for Herman Melville’s recalcitrant law copyist. Formerly known as the Bartleby Project, this collection of classics was one of the earliest web projects to turn books into electronically searchable and readable formats on a large scale. Founder and CEO Steven H. van Leeuwen started the site in 1993 with a single electronic title, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Today, you have at your fingertips some of the great works of Western literature and scholarship, including Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and the Cambridge History of English and American Literature.

Google Books

Where there’s smart, there’s Google. Yet again it earns itself a place in our galaxy of reference stars, this time for Google Books. We looked at the service in some detail in Chapter 3, and it deserves a place in this chapter as well.

Tables of Math Equations

An old joke holds there are three types of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t. As someone squarely in the latter group, the idea of performing arithmetic much more challenging than dividing twenty-five by five gives me hives. Luckily, there’s Math.com. Although it is designed for young students, with its helpful collection of calculators, converters, formulas, and tables, it’s also great for numerically challenged researchers.

And there you have it. You may not realize it now, but you have just put together a reference library that will grant you access to literally thousands of books and millions of facts and will equip you to search for an immense variety of information at little or no cost and with very little effort. These greatest hits represent only a core collection.

Reference Portals

To really flesh out your research, you’ll need to customize your reference library with links to sources of specific interest to the subjects you need to reference most. Let’s take a look at some must-see collections. Feel free to review the list and pluck out the items that you think will be most helpful to you and just keep them handy to consult.

You’ll need to customize your reference library with links to sources of specific interest to the subjects you need to reference most.


At the top of the list is the aptly named RefDesk.com. Calling itself the “Fact Checker for the Internet,” RefDesk.com is a grand bazaar of facts and sources, exhaustive and eclectic. The first thing you’ll notice is that the site looks as if it were designed by someone with better things to do than prettify a website. But what the site lacks in glitz, it more than compensates for with a jaw-dropping collection of links to an immense variety of sources. Scroll down through the amusing collection of daily updates, and you will come upon one of the most marvelous collections of reference sources ever amassed in one place.

Need to find a database to look up toll-free numbers? It’s here. Want to verify that the knee bone’s connected to the shinbone? Check Gray’s Anatomy. Can a committee chairman second a motion? Check Robert’s Rules of Order. We could go on in this vein all week. Symptoms of beriberi? Grover Cleveland’s religion? The name and title of the head of state for Zimbabwe? How much is a 2002 Dodge Stratus worth? These are all findable facts from one or several of the links on RefDesk.com. Spend an afternoon simply browsing through the collection to see what links you might want to appropriate for your own use. The site is a doozy; I promise that you’ll find something of interest here. It trumps Google as a source for facts because the founder, Dr. Bob Drudge, has done his homework. The sites he selects for his search categories are excellent deep web databases. Why monkey around with trying to locate what day of the week April 19, 2053, falls on in Google when RefDesk.com can connect you to a perpetual calendar?

Virtual Reference Shelf

If RefDesk.com wins the blue ribbon for excellence in reference, then the second-place award goes to the “Virtual Reference Shelf” from the Library of Congress. The site may lack the idiosyncratic charm of Dr. Drudge’s handiwork, but the elegant and sleek collection of prime reference materials is worth a spot in your growing library of standard sites.

Internet Public Library

The Internet Public Library (ipl2) is a dependable site for reference tools put together by a group of web-savvy librarians. As mentioned in Chapter 4, librarians have long been adept at constructing pathfinders, or brief explanations of how to research specific topics, and ipl2 specializes in them. Pathfinders point the way to resources and search strategies on a variety of topics, and the ones ipl2 provide are superb. If this redoubtable researchers have fashioned a pathfinder for a subject of interest, count yourself lucky. The directory of links to an assortment of reference topics is equally deserving of your attention. As a public service to the researching public, ipl2 is one of the best.

Online Directories

Finally, try the collection of reference sources available from the directory services of Yahoo! and the DMOZ Open Directory Project. Although you may not think of today’s Yahoo! as a basic directory of useful web resources, that’s where Yahoo! got its start. It still provides a directory, and it’s still an excellent place to find helpful reference sites. The Yahoo! directory has plenty of links to standard reference works (dictionaries, encyclopedias, calendars, libraries of quotations, and the like), but it also offers some idiosyncratic links too. Need to check on measurements and units? Statistics? Directories for very specific subjects? Phone numbers and addresses? Yahoo!’s got them.

DMOZ is a crowd-sourced collection of links organized into a logical taxonomy. It may not be as current as Yahoo!, but it still is a viable source for quick reference links.

Finding Additional Reference Resources

While you zip around the web searching for information, keep track of reference sites of interest. As you no doubt already have realized, reference resources solve one of the basic problems of research, which is knowing where to begin to look. Certainly an almanac isn’t the only source you need to master a subject, but it can provide that initial spark of insight. The general-interest reference sources discussed here are good starting places. They save time and money, not to mention frustration. By keeping a sharp eye out for websites that serve as good reference sites, you can become your own reference desk. How do you know what a good reference site is? Remember, a trustworthy site will be current, the publisher or the editor will be authoritative in the subject matter, and the site will be designed for ease of use.

Reference resources solve one of the basic problems of research, which is knowing where to begin to look.






Encyclopaedia Britannica


Google Books


Google Maps






Library of Congress’s Virtual Reference Shelf




Project Gutenberg


The Quotations Page






U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder


The World Almanac