"Information access for the masses". There was a time when I doubted this New Age slogan. After all, who would be crazy enough to give away valuable information for free when they can charge for it?
Then one day it all magically made sense. This revelation happened during a seemingly ordinary day while I was inside a Barnes and Noble, a nation-wide bookstore chain in the US. I was sitting in their expansive and well-lighted lounge room while reading a non-fiction bookseller. Maybe it was a bad blend of Starbucks coffee, but suddenly it dawned to me. These guys are making huge profits from people like me even while I lounge in their stores, was free to read and browse though books and magazines without any pressure to buy. How? Not counting the money I spent for coffee and snacks while reading books, I must have bought 8 books within a year. Let's see-that's an average of $20/book x 8 = $160. Multiply that by the average number of patrons and the numbers start to add up.
In short, by giving people free access information --in this case, books and magazines-- companies stand to gain more in the long run. The trick is to draw as big a crowd as possible and encourage them to linger, because sooner or later even the most passive "window shopper" will make a purchase.
For companies selling products over the Internet, the story is much the same. The free information is what keeps the Web surfers coming back. Then they make money in one of several ways:
Fortunately, the benefits are not absolutely one-sided. The average person also stands to gain in this new way of doing business (ie, the Internet economy) by having free access to information that used to cost reasonable sums of money.
Let's take for example the student who needs to do research for a school project. Traditionally he the student would need convenient access to a well-equipped library, one with a decent set of reference materials. For anyone living outside Metro Manila, this can be a challenge. Now with the Internet, the student can do some serious research as long as he or she has access to a computer, a modem and an ISP.
Dictionary and Thesaurus
For starters, you'll want some handy references to look up word meanings and related terms. Merriam-Webster Online (http://www.m-w.com/home.htm) offers both a useful dictionary and thesaurus that does the trick. If you prefer Roget's Thesaurus, check out http://www.thesaurus.com. However, one quirk about this site is the large number of banner ads, which can sometimes make searches slow.
I personally like Wordnet (http://www.cogsci.princeton.edu/~wn/online/). This tool is the wordsmith's version of a Swiss army knife. With Wordnet, you can look up definitions, find synonyms and even explore word hierarchy. The last feature is quite handy. For example, if you want to know what kinds of "dogs" there are, just type "dog" in the search box, click on the 'Noun' button, then select 'Hyponyms (full)' from the drop-down list. This gives you a sizable list of dog breeds to have a passable conversation with your Shih-Tzu loving friends. For those who need constant access to a dictionary/thesaurus, you may prefer to download your personal copy of Wordnet. It is identical to the online version, and best of all it's free!
To do serious research, take your pick from one of these online encyclopedia resources. Britannica (http://www.britannica.com) is perhaps the most comprehensive in this category. Yes, this site contains the same information you'll find from those massive set of books that the company sells (or used to sell), without the US$2000 price tag.
Not to be left behind, Microsoft has made a Web version of Encarta (http://encarta.msn.com/). However, I believe this is a concise edition but is nevertheless worth looking at.
Another useful resource is Compton's Online (http://www.optonline.com/comptons/). One feature I like from this site is the generous dose of pictures, maps and charts.
Although not really an encyclopedia per se, the CIA World Fact Book (http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/) offers a wealth of geographic, social and political information. Its reference maps are especially worth looking at.
To find more detailed information that what encyclopedias offer, you need to consult books written for the particular subject matter. Again, the Internet contains a rich collection of tools to help us.
For a comprehensive listing of books, manuscripts on practically any subject, try the US Library of Congress Online Catalog (http://lcweb.loc.gov/catalog/). With over 12 million records in its database, this has to be the mother of all library catalogs. You can search by title, author, keyword or ISBN #.
Another good place to search for book titles is Amazon (http://www.amazon.com), where you can get book recommendations based on subject.
News and Current Events
With all the major content producers competing in the Internet market, you can find just about any newspaper or magazine online these days. A few noteworthy ones are CNN (http://www.cnn.com), BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/home/today), and USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com).
With these resources in your virtual bookshelf, you now can do most of your research from the comfort of your computer terminal. Just hold on to your wallet and don't get too hooked clicking on the tempting ads you see while visiting these sites.
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