Best Free Reference | Best Reference 2015

The best free reference resources online


A recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed the sharing of scientific news and conspiracy theories on social media, specifically on Facebook. Because information is shared within communities of interest, the practice tends to confirm biases already in place, with little regard given to authenticity or truth. ­Librarians must continue to assist their users in distinguishing fact from fiction.

The American Presidency Project Established in 1999 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this resource now includes more than 111,400 documents relating to the presidency, including executive orders, proclamations, press conferences, weekly radio addresses, fireside chats, and State of the Union presentations with links to audio or video where available. Election data post-1789 is available, and users can search items such as Barack Obama’s speeches on LGBT issues. In an election year, this is a great resource for both students and the public.

Book of the States This is your source for state, commonwealth, and territory comparative data. Statistical tables can be downloaded as PDFs or as a spreadsheet, allowing users to customize data. Can elected officials serve consecutive terms? Which states legalized capital punishment? How much are states spending on education? How do voter registration practices compare? There are also fun facts such as each state’s official bird, flower, and motto.

Capitol Words A project of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, this site explores the most popular words and phrases used by legislators in Washington, DC, as they appear in the Congressional Record. You can compare congressional words or phrases by state delegation or political party. Another option allows for seeing which legislators in which states were talking about the Affordable Care Act. Searching for the word bourbon will let you check out Sen. Mitch McConnell’s tribute to John Boehner. Fascinating reading.

Congressional Budget Office The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) supports Congress by providing independent analyses of budget and economic issues and by producing cost estimates and reports for proposed legislation. Reports cover numerous topics from agriculture to veterans’ issues. Content dates back to the 105th Congress (1997–98). Besides special reports, the CBO produces serial publications such as the Monthly Budget Review and Sequestration Reports. CBO is the place to go for finding the cost of implementing any legislation under consideration by Congress.

Discovering American Women’s History Online This repository contains primary-source digital materials concerning women in American history and is maintained by librarian Ken Middleton of Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro. Users will find descriptions and links to more than 700 digital collections covering topics such as advertising, education, and the military. The site is easy to use thanks to an interactive map along with options for keyword and advanced searching by time period, subject, state, and type of resource. Students and historians should begin their research on women’s history online here.

Local Food Directories From the U.S. Department of Agriculture comes this directory that locates retail and wholesale local food outlets. Find associations that deliver locally grown products by using the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) Directory. The On-Farm Market Directory is used to view markets that are managed by a single farm operator who sells directly to consumers. Farmers Market Directory is a list of sites where two or more farm vendors sell directly to customers. All of the directories can be searched by state, zip code, product, or market name.

NetLingo: The Internet Dictionary When Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Scott Falman created the first “smileys” [:-) and :-(] in 1982, it’s unlikely he knew how these would grow exponentially and morph into the modern phenomenon known as emoticons. This commercial site bills itself as the largest list of smileys and text and chat acronyms. There are older ones such as LOL [laugh(ing) out loud], WTMI [way too much information], and 1432 [I love you, too] as well as newer acronyms for politicians such as Donald Trump [(y):P].

NOAA Climate Providing timely and authoritative scientific data, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) goals is to promote public understanding of climate-related events and to provide those making climate-related decisions with key tools. Tabs lead users to News & Features, Maps & Data, Teaching Climate, and Support Decisions. The latter is a clearinghouse of reports and resources to help decision-makers understand and manage climate risks. In 2015, NOAA published its 2015–16 Winter Outlook, which reflected the typical influence of El Niño on winter temperatures and ­precipitation.

Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive The Smithsonian Institution’s vast archival collections document the cultural history of the United States. Search more than 7,000 resource descriptions by subject, name, geographic name, or culture. While not all the archives are digitized, the search function allows for limiting to “only collections with digital assets.” The descriptions are essential tools for accessing the materials as they contain links to digital content and information about accessing the archival materials. An additional feature is ArchiveGrid, which searches for related content outside the Smithsonian’s collections. This rumor-busting site originated in 1995 with David Mikkelson’s interest in researching urban legends. With more than 20 years of professional research experience and a small staff of investigators, Mikkelson produces work that is reliable and backed up with facts. Is that story that just went viral really true? Are left-handed people now eligible for disability benefits under the “Justice for Dexterously Challenged Act”? Search the site by keyword, browse the list of 25 top trending legends, or peruse the archive by topic.

Social Progress Imperative The Social Progress Imperative defines progress as the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens. The 2015 Social Progress Index covers an expanded number of countries (133 with complete data and 28 with partial data) with 52 indicators. The index score is an average across three dimensions: Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity. The average score for countries on the list was 64.39; the average on a population-weighted basis was 61. Norway (88.36) and Sweden (88.06) ranked first and second. The United States ranked 16th, with a score of 82.85.

WPS-World Port Source This site aims to be the premier online resource for publicly accessible seaport information by providing contact data and satellite images of ports and harbors worldwide. Details from cargo carriers, cruise ship lines, shipping agencies, terminal operators, and dozens of business and government agencies enhance the work. Comprehensive information of harbor characteristics such as depth and tide are provided with sections including Ports, Waterways, and Shipping. “Today’s Port of Call” features a satellite photo users can explore in order to determine the ­location.

Brian E. Coutts is Professor and Head, Department of Library Public Services, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green. Cynthia Etkin is a Librarian in Washington, DC.

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