Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 5 • May 2000
Be Savvy! Sometimes the Free Resources Are Better
by Péter Jacsó

“The savviest spending of all is when you don’t pay for all that you get.”
My spell checker in MS Word (which I paid for) flags the word “savviest” as erroneous, but the Web version of the American Heritage Dictionary (which is free) gives it the green light, so I’ll start with an aphoristic statement: The savviest spending of all is when you don’t pay for all that you get. Of course the adage says that you get what you pay for. Certainly. But forget the adage and keep reading, please, if you want to practice good digital librarianship. In this issue I’ll discuss the trend in the free ready reference database segment of the market. I’ll follow up with discussions of the abstracting/indexing and full-text components of digital libraries in later issues. (You can find in-depth reviews that walk you through many of the databases mentioned here in the archives of Péter’s Digital Reference Shelf at

Classic and New Resources
There are many high-quality and time-honored bibliographic resources freely available on the Web. Some of them are published by the owners of the well-known content, such as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (, and some are published by third parties, like the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia ( from Infonautics. As I will discuss below, they may not always provide the same functionality as their fee-based counterparts, but they are often better than the paid online or CD-ROM versions and are always more convenient than their well-known printed equivalents.

Newcomers that offer a digital reference source have a more difficult time in convincing librarians that they are better than the ones that currently hold the monopoly on the shelves. I have known too many librarians who just cannot imagine canceling their standing orders for Books In Print, even if many Web bookstores’ catalogs have far more and far better information about far more books than the venerable Bowker product. Even the idea of trying to make an objective comparison seems blasphemous to many, and they happily pay $1,100 to $1,500 for a single-user CD-ROM version. Of course, this version is not accessible 24/7 and is not nearly as rich in content or as intuitive to use as (, Barnes & Noble (, Borders (, or, to a lesser extent, Fatbrain (

Some fellow librarians are even ordering the print volumes of the BIP series, which don’t have a fraction of the access points and the content, let alone the convenience and ease that any of the above Web-born digital catalogs offer. Do this test: Randomly select five books from Books In Print with Book Reviews, then search for those same titles in the four digital bookstore catalogs. See what information you get from each in terms of bibliographic descriptions, tables of contents, professional review sources, and excerpts. Compare how and by how many criteria you can search for the books in the paid resources and in the free alternatives. Compare what other options they offer, such as notification of when a forthcoming book will be available or what biographical information about the author is available. (Barnes & Noble displays the Gale Group’s great biographies for free.)

The same arguments can be brought up against such paid resources as Bowker’s Complete Video Directory—a sorry CD-ROM database in and of itself that sells for about $500, and painfully so in the company of such gems as the free Internet Movie Database ( and Netflix ( The Internet Movie Database (Figure 1) can teach a lesson or two about interface design and authority control to any high-priced library automation software, and Netflix sweetens the joy of searching it by offering incredibly good rental deals. Blockbuster may have the name recognition, but that doesn’t mean much. Its catalog, though free, can’t hold a candle to either of these two newcomers.

Classic and New Publishers
Some well-known publishers have recognized that the times are changing and have volunteered to make some of their valuable content available for free. A few of them have gone quite far. The best example is Britannica, Inc. (, which shook the world by making its magnificent encyclopedia, enhanced by a directory of tens of thousands of mostly well-selected Web sites, articles from EBSCO’s collection of full-text databases, and hundreds of thousands information-rich records from the Barnes & Noble catalog, freely available. (See Figure 2.) All these features are perfectly integrated with the original Britannica content.

The Gale Group made the Web version of its Biographical Master Index CD-ROM available free of charge as Literary Index ( more than a year ago. It provides cross-references to biographies of 130,000 authors and essays about 140,000 works in 40 classic Gale literary series, which are staples in college libraries. It offers much in the way of convenience—users may search for authors by name, pseudonym, or pen name; nationality; and birth and death dates, and they can search for works by exact title or words from the title.

From the other side of the Atlantic, Cambridge University Press deserves credit for offering free online access to the Cambridge International Dictionary of English, the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, the Cambridge International Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, and the Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (, continuing the trend that was started by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus ( Cambridge University Press has not come out with a free version of the Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, but the company licensed it along with biographical articles from the Cambridge Encyclopedia to A&E Television Networks. Unfortunately, A&E slapped attractive but dopey software on it ( that searches only the header words in the dictionary (i.e., the names) and believes that it has found matching entries when it has not.

Microsoft, as a relatively new player in the encyclopedia market, deserves credit for being the first to make the Encarta Concise Encyclopedia ( available free of charge, featuring substantial articles and excellent country maps. I know, there are many map collections, but they mostly represent a hodgepodge of map styles and unpredictable cartographic details. And Information Please LLC brought its widely used almanacs and then some online for free.

Some classic publishers have apparently shied away from directly offering their treasures for free, but in some cases new publishers license the content and in turn offer it for free on the Web. This is why if you try hard enough (or read the Internet Insights column in the May 2000 edition of Information Today) you can find such highly respected sources such as Houghton Mifflin’s American Heritage Dictionary and Roget’s II New Thesaurus, or Columbia University Press’ The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, third edition or The Columbia Encyclopedia, fifth edition.

In between are those traditional publishers who offer their classy print publications for free on the Web directly and also license the content to third parties. For example, the All Music Guide’s excellent discographies, biographies, album reviews, and genre essays are available digitally from the original content provider ( as well as from new publishers’ music sites (,, and

So Is There a Free Lunch?
Yes, there is. The sources I’ve mentioned are gourmet food and are even served on the good china (except for A&E Biography). True, you see some advertising banners, but it’s not as much advertising as you put up with when watching a movie on TV years after its release in movie theaters. The free versions are far more current than their printed equivalents and are often more current than their competitors’ fee-based products. Even when they offer only a subset of the original source, they can serve the original purpose most of the time and even enhance it in more ways than one.

The free version of the essential subset of Ulrich’s International Periodicals Directory (PubList,, published by Bowes and Associates, Inc., beautifully epitomizes how a mature reference source can be rejuvenated by a few competent people, and not merely through plastic surgery and Web dressing. (See Figure 3.) Contentwise it’s not the full Ulrich’s, but it’s more than enough for most users. It doesn’t have the ceased serials subset of the original, and you can’t search it by Dewey classification number, the editor’s name, the publishers’ ZIP code or telephone area code, or a few other access points, but you can browse and search by title, subject, and publisher through an intuitive interface. You can’t browse by ISSN (you can search, though), but I don’t think many people would like to browse an ISSN index fishing for a number that looks promising. If you are inclined to search by circulation or by abstracting/indexing (A/I) services, you can’t do that in PubList. You can do that in most of the fee-based versions of Ulrich’s but you had better not. Only half of the journals have circulation data, and the A/I listing is grossly outdated and painfully inconsistent.

PubList has a far more current (though not complete) A/I list, hotlinks to publishers’ or even journals’ Web sites (which the DIALOG online version and Bowker’s CD-ROM version, for example, don’t have). It also has links to back-issue and document-delivery services like Jaeger, UnCover, the British Library Document Supply Center, or the very promising Infotrieve service, which was in beta testing in March. Many of the output formats in PubList are designed much better than in the traditional online versions, which can often compensate for the lack of sorting and user-defined format options, too.

So the conclusion is that if you keep searching you will find high-quality, free reference databases. You can use the money that you save by savvy non-spending to subscribe to sources that are of superior quality but not free, such as the splendid Web version of the Oxford English Dictionary, or the impressive Dictionary of Art from Grove. You also save time by using these excellent freebies so that you can spend more time exploring the new free resources for your digital library that are popping up all the time.

[Editor’s Note: Péter Jacsó will hold 60-minute workshops for registered conference participants about free and almost-free databases at the National Online Meeting in May in New York.]

Péter Jacsó is associate professor of library and information science at the University of Hawaii’s Department of Information and Computer Sciences. He is also a columnist for Information Today. His e-mail address is

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