Greg Notess
Reference Librarian
Montana State University
on the net

Ready-Reference Collections: Bartleby and xrefer

ONLINE, September 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.


Bartleby and xrefer offer free searchable access to full-text standard reference works with hundreds of thousands of individual entries.
Online virtual reference collections are one of the many information blessings of the Web. Libraries often create their online collection by collecting links to individual resources, but there have been few free collections of standard reference sources. Two notable exceptions are the free, full-text ready-reference collections from and

Both offer free searchable access to full-text standard reference works with hundreds of thousands of individual entries. The collections differ significantly in the scope of the titles included, search features, and reasons to use them. Understanding the scope and search capabilities of each can help determine how to use them successfully for a variety of reference queries.

The entire Bartleby site includes more than just the reference collection discussed here, with other sections for additional full-text collections of verse, fiction, and non-fiction. Yet for ready-reference questions, Bartleby has a useful collection. The most significant titles in the Bartleby reference collection include the most recent edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia, the 4th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and the 3rd edition of Roget's II: The New Thesaurus.

Most of the rest of the Bartleby reference collection are well-known tomes: Fowler's The King's English, Strunk's The Elements of Style, Mencken's The American Language, the Familiar Quotations of John Bartlett, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the Oxford Shakespeare, Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body, Fannie Farmer's The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, Emily Post's Etiquette, and the Robert's Rules of Order Revised. All together, Bartleby offers more than 25 reference sources, many of them classics in any library's reference collection.

Over on the other side of the Atlantic, we have, which has gathered more than 50 full-text reference sources together and provides not only full-text searching but also extensive cross-linkages between the reference sources. Xrefer offers a variety of dictionaries beyond basic-language dictionaries. There are dictionaries of quotations, music, place names, computer terms, and biography. The publishers included at xrefer are well-known names in the reference publishing world: Houghton Mifflin, Grove, Oxford University Press, Penguin, Bloomsbury, and Macmillan.

The majority of the works are British editions and thus have an obvious English bent in spellings and content. Thus, xrefer includes A Dictionary of English Place-Names and the Market House Books Dictionary of British History. Yet the majority of the works are of broad interest to the English-speaking reference world.

The full list of titles ( shows some general sources like The Macmillan Encyclopedia 2001, The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, and the Bloomsbury Thesaurus. It has Oxford dictionaries for accounting, biology, business, earth sciences, geography, law, science, and more. It has specialized resources such as the Penguin International Dictionary of Finance, A Dictionary of First Names, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought, and the Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography.

For many reference aficionados, the collections available at xrefer, in and of themselves, make the site worth a prominent bookmark or link. Yet, xrefer the company actually trumpets its cross-linking technology over and above the collection. The basic idea of the cross-references (which accounts for the xrefer name as well) is that the indexing for entries not only connects a search to one entry, but also provides links to other related entries in the other works. In essence, it functions like a master index to the entire collection.


It is worth noting the difference in publication dates between the two collections. While there are some notable exceptions, Bartleby's sources are mostly from early in the 20th century. The average date of publication is in the 1930s. While many of these older sources are excellent reference works, it is certainly important to note that Gray's Anatomy, Fannie Farmer's The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and Strunk's Elements of Style are all 1918 editions and have none of the updates available in more modern print editions.

Be sure to note the date of the Bartleby titles before use. Mencken's The American Language is from 1921. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is the 1919 edition, while John Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable goes back to 1898. Relying on the 1922 edition of Emily Post's Etiquette or the 1915 Robert's Rules of Order Revised may result in some surprising anachronisms.

Meanwhile, xrefer's average publication date is in the late 1990s. Even while some of the titles had been published much earlier, xrefer offers the revised, updated editions on its site. The oldest of the titles is the Bloomsbury Good Word Guide from 1977. Several others are from 2000 or 2001. While Bartleby has Fowler's The King's English from 1908, xrefer has The New Fowler's Modern English Usage from 1998.

Yet those titles that Bartleby snagged from more recent years include significant reference sources. The Bartleby copy of the Columbia Encyclopedia is not only the most recent, but was made available through Bartleby before the print edition came out. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is the 4th edition from 2000, and the Roget's II: The New Thesaurus is dated 1995.

Together, these two collections provide a wealth of reference resources. While the total number of entries changes as new titles are added, the xrefer collection alone offers more than 38,000 fully searchable pages of reference books.


At xrefer, the entire collection can be searched, or a drop-down list provides the option of limiting to sub-collections. There are few advanced search features and no advanced search form. Neither Boolean searching nor the + or - is supported. For searches with multiple terms, the search defaults to a Boolean OR operation, with records containing all the terms ranked near the top.

While it would be great to have AND capabilities, at least phrase searching works, with the standard designation of double quotes to identify phrases. Stemming is always on, which means that word variants are searched as well as the words entered. The help page (well worth a read) notes that a search on the term film will find hits not only for film, films, and filming, but also for movie and movies ( The exact matches should be closest to the top, but this explains why, at times, some results seem rather strange.

A couple other special features are worth noting. For those unsure of the exact spelling of a word, adding a tilde at the beginning of the word will do a fuzzy search. So, a search for ~ursas finds hits for ursae, ursus, ursa, rsas, mosasaurs, ursatz, and many others. This can be a very helpful feature especially when you have no idea about the actual spelling.

Truncation is an xrefer strength. The asterisk can be used at the beginning, middle, or end of a word and represents an unlimited number of characters. The question mark can be used for any single character. The xrefer help file notes that the single wildcard symbol can be a great help for crossword buffs since it can be used multiple times. Need a five-letter word for 'jerk' and only have three letters? Try searching sc?m? for possible answers.

Searches on xrefer are not case-sensitive. When searching stop words, only headings are searched. This means that you can look up dictionary definitions of 'the' or 'in' without getting every entry that con- tains the words in the definition. And xrefer can search ranges of numbers. To search years before 1940, use <1940 or to search within a range, use the dash.

There are some very nice search features on xrefer, but it is missing some others that help the power searcher. An advanced search form, and especially the ability to force a Boolean AND operation, would be a good start. Adding an option for an exact match, while disabling automatic stemming and related word searching on demand, would enable much more precise searching.

At the moment, xrefer is a free site, but there are plans to add a fee-based component specifically for libraries.


Bartleby uses Webinator search engine on its site. Since it was busy tweaking the Webinator settings during June, some of the following may well have changed by the time you read this. In case there are still no help files or explanations of search capabilities, check the general Webinator help file ( for the basics of what may still work at Bartleby.

An advanced search form used to be available via an "options" button and is supposed to become available again, but it has not yet been decided whether it will be called "options," "advanced search," or something else.

Either way, unlike at xrefer, when multiple query terms are entered, Bartleby defaults to a Boolean AND. Phrase searching does work, using the standard double quotes. There is still no full Boolean searching nor use of the + or - symbols. Like xrefer, the asterisk is used for truncation and is supposed to be able to be used at the beginning, middle, or end of a term, although it currently only works at the end. There appears to be no automatic stemming or automatic searching of related terms. Bartleby is not case-sensitive. Currently, some search boxes have a limit of 30 characters while others have a limit of 40, which makes entering long quotes or other queries impossible.

One of the improvements made with the June changes is that previously, after running a search, the follow-up search box would search across the entire Bartleby collection, not just reference or whatever the previous selection had been. Now the previous selection remains the default. It also solves a problem where search terms match words used in the surrounding text. Hopefully, future improvements will include some ability to do an OR, to limit searches to just the entry titles, to get the truncation symbol working at the beginning and middle, and to provide more detailed proximity searching.


With so many reference resources available for quick information look-ups, the difficulty for the practicing reference librarian and other information professional is remembering which sources to use and when. With the more than 25 titles at Bartleby and 55-plus sources at xrefer, it is difficult to remember which collection has which source, especially without the added tactile and visual mnemonic aids in print reference collections.

Some general strategies may help in knowing when to use them:

As with any reference collection, online or print, the trick is in finding the best source to answer the question. Building familiarity with these collections and their searching strengths and weaknesses will help the trick work.

Greg R. Notess (; is a Reference Librarian at Montana State University.

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