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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | CYBERSPACE

Array of Reference Sites Is Yours for the Clicking

November 02, 1998|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hardcover encyclopedias have been eclipsed in recent years by CD-ROM versions that take up less shelf space yet offer sound, movies and other multimedia enhancements.

Now an explosion of Internet sites featuring easy-to-search reference works are making an assault on reference CD-ROMs. These sites enable computer users to dispense with juggling compact discs, and most of them are free.

To see just how extensive the reference offerings are in cyberspace, a good place to begin is the My Virtual Reference Desk site at http://www.refdesk.com/.

Organized as a massive directory to other sources of information, My Virtual Reference Desk offers more than two dozen areas to browse. The hyperlinks to other sites include everything from the Yellow Pages to a calculator that converts distances, viscosity, temperature and 27 other categories.

The only drawback to My Virtual Reference Desk is that it is perhaps too comprehensive, lumping pure reference works such as dictionaries with newspapers, software downloads and even Web minicam sites.

For more targeted research, a better choice is to go directly to a reference site that can answer a specific question.

If you are looking for the definition of a word, for example, a good place to check is OneLook Dictionaries (http://www.onelook.com). The site lets you search through nearly 2 million words in 381 dictionaries. If you are unsure of the spelling of the word you want to define, you can use wildcard characters like an asterisk or question mark to find the word. For example, typing "tomo*ow," "tomo??ow" or "tomor*" will find the word "tomorrow."

The venerable dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster also has a Web site (http://www.m-w.com) where users can consult an online dictionary, thesaurus and a word-of-the-day feature.

Another option is http://www.dictionary.com, which has a URL that's easier to remember.

While most people already have a dictionary, few have the specialized reference works that are increasingly necessary to decipher the blizzard of new words and phrases confronting consumers in the Information Age.

Take the term "URL." You see it and lots of other cryptic technical terms on the Web. How do you find out what they mean? PC Webopaedia at http://www.pcwebopaedia.com can help. You can enter abbreviations, acronyms and technical words at its search prompt and it will deliver a concise definition faster than you can say "megabyte."

But although online versions of mainstay reference works are clever and often fast, they hardly take advantage of the multimedia features of the Web. By contrast, online mapping and almanac sites often top their CD-ROM or hard copy counterparts with speed, flexibility and convenience.

For example, the online version of the Farmer's Almanac (http://www.almanac.com) provides a virtual calendar where users can click red letter days to learn more about moon calendars, planting charts, recipes, weather predictions and more.

Similarly, the Information Please Almanac site (http://www.infoplease.com) is enhanced with illustrations, tabulated data, charts and pictures. It contains much, but not all, of the vast collection of information of its paperback counterpart. Mapquest (http://www.mapquest.com) is another cleverly designed site that offers users lots of convenient features. You can get driving directions to a requested destination, print out a map of your neighborhood, plan a trip and find mapping information for millions of locations around the world. The site will even list travel information on restaurants, banks, lodging and other places of interest for the United States and Europe.

More complex reference works, like encyclopedias, fail to duplicate the CD-ROM experience because most consumers lack the high-speed Internet access needed to enjoy audio, movies and detailed graphical information on their computer screens.

But http://www.encyclopedia.com goes light on the graphics and often requires users to click on a separate link to display pictures. The comparatively brief reference articles have links to other Web sites for more detailed information. A premium version of the site offers unlimited access to hundreds of magazines, newspapers, news wires, books, pictures and maps for a fee.

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Please send Internet site suggestions to cutting.edge@latimes.com.

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