Frequently Asked Reference Questions

Reference Resources

It’s not surprising that many patrons write to us hoping that familiar reference resources are available online. Our patrons already know that the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature or Books in Print is what they need to answer their question, and they hope that they can access it using the Internet.

However, it’s equally unsurprising that, although many of these resources do exist in a digital form, most of them are not made freely available on the web. There are two main reasons for this. One is copyright. The publisher owns the rights to reproduce the content of the reference resource; so they are the only ones who can decide whether the resource will be available online or not. The IPL can’t make a digital copy of The World Almanac, for example, because our organization does not hold the copyright to that resource, so it would be illegal for us to put a digital copy of the book on our web site.

The second reason is money. If a publisher makes their resource free to everyone by putting it up on its web site, they will not sell as many copies of the print version, and they will probably lose some of that revenue. Many publishers (like the one that publishes the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature) have started to make web versions of their reference source, but they then charge you (or a subscribing library) lots of money in order to be able to access the resource via the web.

Some publishers, though, are beginning to recognize that they can make their publication free to everyone on the Internet, and still make money by selling ad space on their site. That’s why you can now access the full text of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary at http://www.m-w.com, Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus at http://www.bartleby.com/62/, and Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations at http://www.bartleby.com/63/. Another site you can try is XREFER, which provides access to the full text of the Oxford Dictionary of Art, Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women, Who’s Who in the Twentieth Century, Oxford Companion to English Literature, and numerous other reference sources through one simple search box. For more extensive lists of such resources, see the Reference Resources section of our General Collection at Resources By Subject > Reference.

There are also sometimes web sites that can meet your needs, even if they aren’t the exact resource you are looking for. For example, as an alternative to Books in Print (which has an electronic version, but you have to pay to access it), use a large online bookstore like Amazon.com to see if you can get the information you need about a book.

Finally, don’t forget to contact your library if you are looking for Internet-accessible versions of your favorite reference work! Many public and university libraries are subscribing to electronic resources that you can access from the comfort of your own home, and you just need to enter a password or library card number in order to access the resource through the library’s web site. The type of resources that you’ll find there (full-text newspaper and magazine databases, business directories, biographical materials, etc.) will often be much more useful to you than anything else that is freely available on the Internet.