If you need to conduct research for professional or personal reasons, or you simply want reliable answers to any number of burning questions, then one of the best resources available is your local public library — despite the problems faced by libraries nowadays, such as reduced hours of operation prompted by city and county budgetary restraints.
For many decades, public libraries in the United States have offered a wide variety of worthwhile services. In addition to the usual printed and audio books that can be borrowed for free, most libraries now provide Internet access, movies on DVD and videotape, periodicals, community information, meeting facilities, book clubs, programs for children, and occasional free concerts.
However, for the individual hoping to obtain information as quickly as possible, the local library may be inconveniently located, and is probably closed during the evenings, when the individual has some free time. That is just one of the many reasons why students, writers, and other information seekers will typically first try to find that information on the Web.
As Close As Your Computer
Search engines are probably the best way to find online information as quickly as possible for any narrow subject area. But for a broad subject area, the millions of hits provided by a typical search, can be useless at best, or completely overwhelming. Even worse, these automated search engines are usually not able to weed out the hucksters posing as disinterested sources of information.
When you seek information quality, and not quantity, then you are typically better off starting your quest on websites that have been created by fellow researchers, and containing links to the sites that they believe to be the most worthy of your time and attention. This explains the enduring popularity of online subject directories, which characterized Yahoo in its early days, before it was transformed into a portal site. Most other major subject directories met with a similar fate.
Fortunately for the avid researcher, subject directories are still available. For instance, the Internet Public Library has so many resources that one could easily use it as the sole starting point for any professional or scholarly research effort. The IPL may not have entire books — as does Project Gutenberg — but it can be tremendously helpful for anyone who wishes to obtain authoritative information online, without wading through countless links served up by search engines.
Founded by the University of Michigan's School of Information, the IPL went online 17 March 1995, with the bulk of its content created by students. At the very beginning of 2007, management of the IPL was assumed by the IPL Consortium, which comprises 15 colleges. The site is hosted by the iSchool at Drexel's College of Information Science and Technology. Additional support is provided by Florida State University's College of Information.
The IPL offers a wide hierarchy of subject areas, each containing links to some of the best materials offered on other websites. There are, as of this writing, ten subject categories: Arts & Humanities, Business, Computers, Education, Leisure, Health, Law & Government, Regional, Science & Tech, and Social Science. Within each subsection, one will find dozens of websites listed, including their names, URLs, and brief summaries.
As a developer of software and websites, I will use, as an example, the IPL's computer section, which contains subsections devoted to computer science, hardware, software, history, culture, news, the Internet, and programming. Within that last subsection, there are links to sites discussing the subject in general, as well as sites that focus on specific programming languages, including frequently asked questions (FAQs) and free tutorials.
Like any worthy library, the IPL also has a substantial reference area, with sections for almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other handy materials. The dictionaries come in a variety of languages, including English, and there are also a couple links to online language translation services. The encyclopedias section has far more links — some quite unique. Yet perhaps the most interesting section of all is the one labeled "More Ready Reference", with subsections for almanacs and Web directories, and just about every other reference area in between.
If you would like to take a break from your research efforts, head over to the "Reading Room", where you will find links to online books, magazines, and newspapers from all over the world — even Antarctica, which boasts three newspapers. (That's three more than I would have guessed.)
Special Collections and Special People
The IPL offers a site designed specifically for children, Kidspace, as well as one for teenagers, TeenSpace. The former offers links to safe and informative sites with the younger crowd in mind, while the latter has sections that would be of great interest to teenagers, such as "Homework Help" and "FAEQs — Answers to Frequently Asked Embarrassing Questions".
What really sets the IPL apart from other online reference resources, is the live help available. As a visitor to the site, you can ask any reference question, and it will be answered by volunteer librarians and graduate students. To access that functionality, simply click on the "Ask a Question" link in the left-hand navigation column, and you will be presented with a form in which to enter your contact information and your reference question.
The only negatives to the IPL, are that the site is not particularly attractive, and it runs on obsolete tables-based HTML code. But the latter flaw would only impact visitors using assistive technology, and does not diminish the IPL's value as a research tool. Also, it illustrates that one should never judge a book entirely by its cover, nor a library site by its appearance.
Libraries certainly have changed with the advent of computers and the Web. The majority of the patrons are now to be found at the Internet terminals, and not among the bookshelves. Ages from now, if any of the public libraries are still around, and have not been converted into Internet cafés, then you still may be able to find a real live reference librarian, sitting behind a counter and ready to answer your questions. In the meantime, you can still seek their help before they have even left college — via the Internet Public Library.