For expert users deeply familiar with the Internet, it is a superb place to do research, using the extensive sources available through newsgroups. But for the rest of us who may just want to look something up from time to time, there are some excellent sites on the World Wide Web as well. With a little patience, you can find out basic facts about just about anyone or any place.
If you just want to look up a word, for example, try the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary search site (www.m-w.com/mw/netdict.htm). It will take you to a simple screen with a window in which you enter the word you wish to look up, then hit the search button. When the definition appears, so does a thesaurus button. Click it and a list of synonyms appears, together with the definition of the original search word.
There is also a list of what are called "related words." For example, the word "thrill" has as synonyms the following: "bang, boot, kick, wallop." Also included, however, are the related words, "excitement, lift, stimulation, titillation."
If this version of Webster's doesn't have what you're looking for, try the Onelook Dictionaries Database (www.onelook.com). This site encompasses a vast array of reference works from the 1913 edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary to the Dictionary of Insects and Spiders. There are 15 medical dictionaries and 21 business dictionaries. There is also a search page which allows you to look up a word in several of the volumes at once.
You can narrow your search to provide pronunciation only, or to look only at spelling word lists. Yes, you can specify a search of all 121 of the site's dictionaries, but be prepared to wait a while. Finally, you can follow the site's links to other dictionaries, which include the Random House Dictionary (www.answers.com/reference.cgi). This is an excellent and up-to-date volume with highly detailed definitions. You need to provide an e-mail address to use it, but it's free.
Free general reference encyclopedias are not common on the Internet, and there is nothing to rival the all-purpose online volumes such as Microsoft's Encarta or Grolier's Interactive Encyclopedia. But at a site called the Free Internet Encyclopedia (www.cs.uh.edu/~clifton/micro.a.html), Clifton Davis, who describes himself as a "slightly balding, chubby middle-aged graduate student" has organized a large set of Web links into an alphabetical listing resembling an encyclopedia.
If you click on a name, you may be taken to a government site, another private site, or an educational institution site with information on your chosen subject. You have to judge the information for yourself, but there's lots of it.
If you like exploring different sites for information, you should try My Virtual Reference Desk (www.refdesk.com), which is a huge compendium of sites ranging from newspapers to magazines to technical reference sites of all kinds. Some of the addresses are out of date, but you can't beat this site for sheer comprehensiveness. And if you would like to take advantage of some of that information your government spends your tax money to gather, you should try the CIA's publications site (www.odci.gov./cia/publications/pubs.html).
Here is a shelf of books including the CIA's 1996 World Factbook, which is an excellent source of current information about countries around the world. There is no search engine for this particular volume, but the material is organized by continent and in alphabetical order by country within each continent. (Russia, by the way, is listed as located in Asia, which it certainly is, but much of it is in Europe as well.)
Each country's entry contains an illustration of its flag and a map of the country showing its major cites. There are details in such categories as people, geography, economy, transportation, communications and defense. Under the people section are such facts and figures as the population, its distribution among age groups, life expectancy, literacy rates, size of ethnic groups.
Under communications, you will learn how many telephones a country has, how many radios and televisions and how many radio and television stations. Under transportation, you will find out how many miles of paved road, the size of a country's rail system, how many airports and what size the runways are.
The CIA reference shelf also includes a list of the heads of state and Cabinet officers of countries around the world. There is no biographical information, alas, so you may need to try the "people search" engine in My Virtual Reference Desk. This will give a global Internet search, using the Yahoo search engine, and is likely to provide the biographical information you're seeking.
T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com, or Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.