Quick—what movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1942? If you need fast facts to finish your homework, settle a bet, or bone up on game-show trivia, the Web is quicker than a trip to the library and cheaper than a bookstore spree.
You may be able to pull up the bit of information you need in a standard Web search. But when accuracy counts, you want a resource you can trust—like an encyclopedia. The Web contains many electronic encyclopedias for your reference needs, although some of the name-brand stalwarts like Encyclopæa Britannica charge a subscription fee to see every article available on the site.
If you're researching a topic very thoroughly and deeply, you may need to access published articles from thousands of sources. Services like Lexis-Nexis maintain databases of every newspaper and magazine article published in the last several decades, although you'll pay dearly for access to this miraculous storehouse of text. See the box below.
By the way, Mrs. Miniver won Best Picture in 1942. If you answered Casablanca (which won in '43), you need a better online encyclopedia, like one of the following:
Encylopedia.com. With 57,000 articles from the Columbia Encyclopedia, this free site (www.encyclopedia.com ) often adds links to maps and newspapers to its entries so you can read other sources on the topic. Some material is subscription-only, but there's a free trial period—so in a pinch, you can sign up, get the goods, and skedaddle. If you decide you like the service, however, subscriptions cost about $20 a month or $100 annually.
Reference.com. On the site that also brings you Dictionary.com and The-saurus.com, you can find brief articles culled from other encyclopedias around the Web (www.reference.com). (See Section 4.6–95 for more on the dictionary and thesaurus options.)
CIA World Factbook. The free CIA World Factbook (www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook) is great for looking up geographical information and population statistics. It also displays maps and the flags of the world.
Wikipedia. Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) is a collaborative, grassroots encyclopedia. Anyone who reads it can also add to it or edit it, quickly and easily (Figure 4-3). (The "wiki" part of the site's name means "quick" or "fast" in Hawaiian.) As a result, Wikipedia is brilliant, unusually helpful, and occasionally incorrect. Although Wikipedia's creators made provisions for correcting or deleting erroneous information, it's best to verify the facts on another site.
Encarta. Microsoft's digital reference work, usually sold as a DVD aimed at students, is also online at http://encarta.msn.com. Some articles are free, but you have to pay to get the good stuff ($5 per month or $30 per year).
Encyclopædia Britannica. This famed collection, founded in Scotland in 1768, is still an authoritative reference in the Internet age (www.britannica.com). Non-members can search and browse brief articles and summaries, but paying members enjoy unlimited, ad-free access to the entire collection and qualify for discounts in Store Britannica. Fees are about $12 per month or $70 per year.
In addition to these encyclopedias, you can sometimes find answers to trivia stumpers on www.funtrivia.com. If you can't find your answer online, try asking an expert directly. Google (http://answers.google.com) offers professional researchers who scurry off and dig up answers for you for a fee that you propose. Yahoo (http://answers.yahoo.com) offers a different spin: You can post a few questions to the Yahoo community at no charge, but use up your free allotment of "points" by doing so. When you run out, you can earn points back by answering other people's questions.