Basic factual information -- who, what, when, where, how, how much -- is traditionally contained in reference works such as dictionaries, directories, encyclopedias and the like. It is often information that we need, and need quickly in its most current iteration, and yet it is very difficult to find in a vast electronic resource such as the internet. When searching for such information, it is important to begin by identifying the likely holder of that information. In other words, if you are looking for a telephone number, you might do better by identifying a telephone directory and searching that limited source rather than the whole internet. So, the first step in your search strategy is to determine what factual information is held in what type of resource.
Biographical sources (often, collective biographies) organize their information around: gender; ethnicity/nationality/geography; award/achievement; profession/occupation; or time period (life/death/flourished). Thus, the more you already know about a person, the easier it may be to find information. For example, if you are looking for information about Milton Gregg, it will be much easier to find if you also know: he was a he, he was a Brigadier, he was born in New Brunswick, and he won the Victoria Cross in World War I. That is not a lot of information, but each piece tells you something -- for example, you can eliminate all collective biographies about women and Americans and concentrate on those that cover both sexes, just men, just military men, and/or Canadians.
Compendia (yearbooks and almanacs) contain useful, but brief, information: facts, statistics, and summaries. They will tell the user who, what, when and where, occasionally how, but seldom why. Yearbooks limit themselves to a single year. Almanacs cover the previous year most extensively but usually contain some historical information, often in the form of chronologies or time lines.
Dictionaries contain an alphabetized list of unconnected items, usually words. They are used to determine spelling, syllabication, pronounciation, definition, synonyms and offer grammatical information. They may also include historical and etymological notes, and may be general or specialized. Specialized dictionaries may be restricted by subject (eg medical terms), geography (eg Newfoundland English), form of language (eg slang), time period (eg Shakespearean English), and they may even include non-spoken languages (eg glyph images). Generally, dictionaries take one of two approaches when determining their content. They may be descriptive, believing that the entries for words must reflect the common culture and spoken word, or prescriptive, believing that definition and usage should adhere to standards, customs, and traditions.
Directories are made up of lists of individuals or organizations arranged in some order (alphabetically, functionally, geographically, etc.). Each entry generally will contain a name, address, phone number or similar data which allows the user to contact the person or organization. There are a wide variety of directories -- government, telephone, association, occupational, city, etc.
Encyclopedias provide information from a variety of areas or topics, or may be limited to discussing a single subject in detail. The entries are generally arranged in alphabetical order and depending on the scope, format, and audience, may vary widely in quantity, quality and intellectual content. Encyclopedias provide overviews of a subject and are useful for answering basic "why" questions -- why does water freeze, for example.
Geographical sources, in their most basic form, answer questions of location (where) and distance (how far). However, geographical sources also provide us with graphical representations of that basic information and additionally, may show us the linkages among such things as climate, environment, commodities, political boundaries, history and human society. Maps, atlases, gazetteers and guide books are just a few examples of geographical sources.
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Once you have identified the type of resource you need to answer a fact-based question, then you have to find the resource. Ironically, finding the right dictionary on the internet can sometimes be harder than figuring out which dictionary you need. If you have access to a good library reference section, you may find that it is quicker, easier, and more efficient to use the materials found there than to use the internet. However, if it is three in the morning or if there is a raging snowstorm, you may want to try the internet. You can cold search, and if you really know what you are doing, you may be quite successful. That said, the best approach may be to find a gateway or portal site which has already identified potential resources for you. Many libraries are integrating internet based resources into their collections and will provide you will links to dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. as part of their web sites.
Collections of similar reference materials may be found at:
For reference materials related to particular subjects (for example, a dictionary of computer terms), look first for the subject and then for reference resource. Try, for instance:
Many subject web files or print guides have a reference resources section specific to the subject.
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Cold, or dirty, searching refers to a type of search done on an electronic system. A cold search is really a fishing expedition, where the user is hoping one of the results may suggest a better search strategy. For example, if you were looking for basic information on wolverines and you did not want to go or could not go to an identified resource such as those listed above, you might try a cold search on a internet search engine such as Google®. Cold searching wolverines returns a high number of results that have much to do with sports teams, instead of dealing with wolverines the animals. You then have to play with your search, eliminating, for example, the word teams, or alternatively, including the word animal. If you use the chosen search engine correctly, and depending on the nature of the needed information, you may be able to produce results that actually answer your question.
Users are cautioned that many reference resources such as encyclopedias exist within discrete databases on the internet, and internet search engines may not index the content of those databases.
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This page copyright, created and maintained by Linda Hansen.
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Created: 1999/10/10 Last updated: 2011/12/15
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