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References you can trust

No posts yesterday — I was preoccupied with some kind of news event — though I have taken part in the back-and-forth over Wikipedia. (Where, by the way, are all the wiki-wary among you? I could use some more backup.) Today I have some time to answer a question from a reader who wonders what electronic references I would recommend.

This is not a systematic or exhaustive list, but the items on it are all useful. Not infallible, but subject to some degree of verification.

The online Oxford English Dictionary, which is updated each quarter, is an indispensable reference on language, but it is available by subscription, and the subscription is not cheap. Best if you can piggyback on some institutional subscription, such as at a university.

Merriam-Webster has a decent online dictionary and thesaurus. For current slang and nonce expressions, Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary is reliable.

Assignment has an extensive set of links to electronic resources, such as the CIA World Factbook, U.S. government directories, and U.S. and foreign newspapers.

The Librarians’ Internet Index has links to Web sites that have been vetted. has access to a number of reference books, including books of quotations and an edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia.

The Library of Congress has a wealth of information freely available., of course, for all those urban legends and Internet rumors that turn out to have no foundation.

For music, the Allmusic blog. For films, the Internet Movie Database.

Enough to get you started and lure you away from Wikipedia for a while?



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:54 PM | | Comments (18)


Thanks for this list. I've printed it and it's on my wall.

Just send the wiki-weary to Buckipedia, the inexhaustible source of facts and things that sound like they could be facts.

I've always got your back, Prof. McIntyre.

I'm also wiki-wary, though I'll admit to clicking on a link to it every now and then. It's as trustworthy as any other random internet source, and I dislike that it calls itself an encyclopedia, but it does make a decent jumping board when I'm too lazy to get to the library for a proper encyclopedia.

Thanks for the links - I can't wait to check out the Librarian's Index!

I visit wikipedia quite a bit, I figure its information is fairly reliable. I was recently reading something that was termed "Savonarola-esque" so I went there to find out who Savonarola was. What a terrible demise!

Bucky, I'd like to see the Buckipedia, especially the things that sound like they could be facts.

At my paper, using Wikipedia as a primary source is forbidden, for all the reasons John McIntyre has mentioned. It's not a reliable source.

Thanks for the links. We're always looking for legitimate online sources.

I hate using Wikipedia because you just never know who wrote the item and, what's worse, you never know who edited the item. Until each article comes complete with the author's name and pertinent information about the editors, I'll continue to think of information from Wikipedia on the same level as information received from a crazy guy in a bar who's just screaming out phrases and has no facts to support any of what he is saying ("The capital of Texas is Dallas!" "The secretary of Defense is third in line of succession!" "The Seahawks have never been in the Super Bowl" and the like).

It seems to me that wikipedia is neither perfect nor horrifying. I feel perfectly confident looking at it for general information, or certain kinds of scientific or technical information. It's reasonably accurate in most cases. I avoid it for any kind of information that might be controversial. It would be stupid to look for any current political information there, for example.

It's like any other supplier of information; you have to consider the source.

After re-reading this post and the comments, I will be using the links provided above and less inclined to visit Wikipedia. I agree with Tom's post that Wiki is good for general info, but not for anything that could be deemed controversial.

I have used the IMDB website for movies for a long time now.

In my experience, Wikipedia is only to be used if one needs a quick overview of the subject -- I recommend it more for general knowledge than as a source. Count me as another of your wiki-wary web warriors.

Back in the early (at least, to me) days of Wikipedia, shortly after it began to show up on Google results, I read the wiki entry on (whatever) topic and, limited as my own knowledge was, I knew that everything in that entry was no only barely coherent, but complete fertilizer!

I got Wikipedia's number that day.

I find Wikipedia useful for what it is: a potential source of information that must be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. Each article has to be assayed for plausibility on its own merits, and it helps to know something about the subject-matter in advance. I wouldn't rely on Wikipedia information in a situation where accuracy matters, though, especially in an area where I'm completely ignorant and don't have knowledge of my own to bring to bear on the topic.

There is a "companion" to the IMDB for Broadway shows, the Internet Broadway Database, at

But IMDB also allows readers to add and edit their own material. The plot synopsis is one example.

Two interesting articles:

The first is Britannica's decision to move toward allowing user input (with approval by an editor)

The second is Wikipedia's response by proposing to require an editor to approve changes in certain articles, as is done in the German Wikipedia.

So, my comment is this:
If Britannica starts allowing user changes, and if Wikipedia starts requiring editors, would the line blur enough to make Wikipedia articles that require editing "reliable"? Would Britannica articles with user input become "less reliable"? Would Britannica automatically be better because it's named "Britannica," not "Wikipedia"?

Full disclosure:
I love Wikipedia, and in my experience it has been reliable, current events notwithstanding. But do I ever use or rely on that information without checking the reliability of the references it lists? No.

This would be a step forward for Wikipedia, particularly if

(a) the name of the editor were included with the article and

(b) each vetted article were labeled as such.

At work, I am known for my frequent use of Wikipedia, to which I was turned on by a coworker. I limit myself, however, to proofreading and minor copy edits. As for the content, true, it has six billion editors, but my attitude is that it also has six billion fact-checkers. I am hopeful the truth will win out. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. ;)

"CIA World Factbook, U.S. government directories, and U.S. and foreign newspapers."

Mmmh. Do you really trust the CIA World Factbook? (A document in which I found dodgy "facts" about my own country - weird statistics without a source. Unusable for any serious work - all stats must be traceable to a study.)

But, hey, I work in academia, so I can afford to be picky.

Scratch the "Librarians' Internet Index." It lists a lot of trash sites, including Wikipedia. Not exactly "Websites you can trust."

I enjoy using Wiki for the free prints of various photos and paintings. Or to jog my memory when I can't get to a more reliable source. Or to find links to other, more reliable sources. I guess I use it infrequently and with relative indifference.
I would say that I am somewhere between Wikineutral and Wikiwary. I am not Wikiphobic, but neither do I experience Wikiphelia.
I would suggest being careful in using carries a number of errors. Like Wiki, users are allowed to make unsubstantiated entries. I know about this from personal experience.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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