Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Free information for the taking

There's a wealth of free resources out there--online databases, audiobooks, museum passes, and help so that you can find even more resources. You just need to know where to look:

Intute is a search site offered by a consortium of universities that covers science and technology, arts and humanities, social sciences, and health and life sciences. You don't have to be a library member to use it.

Associations Unlimited lists international associations, as well as U.S. nation, regional, state, and local associations and IRS data on nonprofit organizations.

ReferenceUSA has phone numbers and detailed information on more than 15 million U.S. and Canadian businesses, 210 million U.S. and 12 million Canadian residential listings.

The Historical New York Times Project offers everything the paper has published since 1851 to within the last three years. Search results include a plain text file, a PDF of the article or a PDF of the newspaper page containing the article. The PDF newspaper pages are full of live links, so you can jump to another article that catches your eye on the page as you do with a real newspaper. This type of database is available for several leading and local newspapers through the average public library.

Gale Virtual Reference Library from Thompson Gale offers full-text articles from more than 1,000 different encyclopedic sources in e-book format including those from third-party publishers. Libraries pick and choose which sets they want to include so content varies. Titles offered include the Business Plans Handbook, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security and Roaring Twenties Reference Library.

Factiva from Dow Jones offers access to full text articles from more than 10,000 worldwide sources, including newswire stories from Reuters and the Associated Press and transcripts of news broadcasts.

Heritage Quest Online holds U.S. Census data from 1790 to 1930, the African American Freedman's Bank records, 20,000 histories from families, and an index of about 2 million articles on genealogy and local American culture.

InfoTrack offers charts and images, in addition to full text articles from peer-reviewed academic journals, newspapers and general periodicals.

JStor is an archive of scholarly journals from academic libraries ranging as far back as the 1600s to within the last two to five years, depending on the copyright holder's preference. The archive, run by a not-for-profit organization of academic institutions, scans and stores the articles as high-resolution images so people can view them in their original layout and format.

Ebsco Host contains a comprehensive group of databases offering full text articles from newspapers, periodicals and journals on a wide variety of subjects.

Business Source Premier is a business research database of periodicals on all subject areas relating to businesses including economic reports, country and industry reports, company profiles and full text articles going back as far as 1965.

Many libraries have begun to lend digital versions of their books. The San Francisco Public Library lends out more than 5,000 titles as e-books. The files can be downloaded to your computer or a portable device and are good for seven days.

Ebrary, a California publishing company founded by Chris Warnock, the son of Adobe Systems co-founder and chairman John Warnock, also offers abut 20,000 freely searchable e-books. The database is licensed to several libraries, but if your library does not subscribe you can still use part of the service from the company's main Web site. It's free to read the material online and 25 cents per page to copy or print.

Before you plunk down $30 at for company on those long car drives or daily commutes, consider what your library might have to offer. Libraries, such as the Chicago Public Library, now offer free downloads of digital audibooks after downloading free software and updating your media player from the library's site. The files are DRM-protected, but you can transfer them to portable media players, smart phones or cell phones and in many cases even burn them to a CD. Once the loan period for the file is over, the file is expired and will no longer play. You then just delete the file.

There is, however, one major reason audiobook rental has not caught on. Most of the service providers of audiobooks use DRM-protected WMA (Windows Media Audio) files, a file format the Apple's iPods do not currently support.

"We have had a subscription to NetLibrary for about four years. People are using it for downloadable audible books," said Leslie Burger, who served as president of the American Library Association from July 2006 to June 2007 and is the director of the Princeton Public Library in Princeton, N.J. "Of course, the problem with that is that you can't download to an iPod. It frustrates people. You would get more if it were working with the most ubiquitous device. Of course, some people do use it. They bought the kind of MP3 players they need to get them to work."

Free passes to museums
Some libraries, such as the Boston Public Library offer free passes to museums or discounts to local area attractions. Keep in mind, however, that you do need to reserve these ahead of time and pick them up at the library branch in person.

Your own personal librarian
Still too overwhelmed by choice on your library's Web site? You could simply ask for help. Most libraries offer personal librarian service with a two- or three-day e-mail response time. They will either answer your question, or offer suggestions on how to find what you need.

Massachusetts, for example, is part of a librarian service that offers real-time assistance with a librarian 24 hours a day, seven days a week via instant messaging. A list of live links the librarian showed during the chat session will be sent to you via e-mail, as well as a transcript of the chat if you want it. New Jersey offers a similar service called QandANJ.

The U.K. and Australia also offer the same type of service for its citizens at the national level.

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