One of the reservations most journalists have about the Internet is that it does not contain reliable reference material. But that is no longer the case. Today you can use the web to find many reliable reference sources, most of them originally printed on paper.

Online reference books

The London publisher Bloomsbury has built a useful site around its own reference books. Meanwhile, the entire text of the current Encyclopaedia Britannica is available online, and lots more besides, at Britannica.com. This is a subscription service.

If, however, your subject is something where the state of knowledge has barely changed in a century, you could try the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, that is now online in its 29-volume entirety. Obviously, this does not replace more modern reference works, but it is a fascinating document in its own right. Many consider it the best of the Britannicas.

The web's secret weapon: books

One of the great boons of the Internet is that the full texts of thousands of out-of-copyright books are available online. Some are in web versions that you can search from a website. Others have to be downloaded to your computer before you can read or search them. Either way, it makes instant erudition available to all.

There are numerous places to look. The most obvious these days is Google Books, which includes details of some books, limited previews of others, and some full texts. You can specify what you want on the opening page. One site that enables you to search for words or phrases from a whole catalogue of web-accessible text is SearchEbooks. Among the sites it searches are several online libraries. Bartleby.com describes itself as an Internet publisher. It has a large number of excellent reference books, including the 2001 Columbia Encyclopaedia, the King James Bible and Shakespeare, as well as poetry, fiction and more.

The driving force putting most of these old books into digital form is Project Gutenberg, one of the Internet's great pieces of altruism. It turns them into what it calls "plain vanilla" ASCII texts, readable on any computer, and they are all free. So far it has placed more than 5,000 such texts online.

If you need to know the basic publication details of printed books, try searches at the British Library or the Library of Congress. If you eventually find you need to buy an old book, try UsedBookSearch. It claims to know the whereabouts of 35 million books worldwide, and works remarkably well. Try doing that without the Internet.

For those who want to go beyond printed sources, a vast and excellent resource is RefDesk, which is run by Bob Drudge, a reference librarian by background as well as the father of Matt, creator of the Drudge Report.

If dictionaries are your thing (they are mine), you are spoilt for choice at yourDictionary.com, which has innumerable examples covering languages, jargon, dialect and so on. But if you want a good (American) English dictionary, go to Dictionary.com, which uses the 2000 American Heritage dictionary. Oxford University Press has its own AskOxford site, but it is very populist in approach. The Oxford English Dictionary is online, too, but you can't afford it. But do ask your local reference library: many now have online subscriptions that you can use from your own computer.

Business information online

Business information is a whole topic in itself. You can use Companies House online, but you have to pay for anything useful, with the exception of the register of disqualified directors. So much for open government. Lots more is available, for nothing, about listed companies: but you will often have to register. Try Hemmington Scott or Hoover's UK. You can get free annual reports, either as Acrobat downloads or by post, from World Investor Link.

The City news service Bloomberg has a good site, but only a limited amount of material is available for nothing. All official stock exchange announcements are available at Investegate. A lot of useful advice about understanding business, aimed at small investors, can be found at The Motley Fool.

If you are writing about US companies, you need the Securities and Exchange Commission and its search engine EDGAR.

Government, phones, trains, maps, etc.

The British government's central site is DirectGov, but for press information you will find the Government News Network site more efficient.

You may also need the European Union press database, Hansard, National Rail's timetable, Directory Enquiries, the world time server, a good medical site, a guide to what's on, a gazetteer and a map site for use at home or abroad.

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