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LoC websiteHere's a question for all our elderly readers: Do any of you remember the primitive era affectionately called 1995, and hearing your college professors speak hopefully (or possibly lament) that soon all the information and media ever created would be up on this web thing and easily accessible and available free of charge? Do you remember how many people went out and bought those state of the art 486s and bleeding edge Pentium I computers, and signed on with AOL or Compuserve or Mindspring to fire up Netscape, stumble on to Yahoo! only to discover the truth.

Even back then, there was a lot of stuff online that was technically information or visual/audible media. It was free, much of it, anyway, as well. I spent way too many hours watching an oddity called a webcam update at shockingly fast one minute intervals, as it delivered grainy black and white stlll images of some forgotten webmaster's painted turtle in California to my desktop in Northern Virginia.

As far as exotic, fine art work or rare, priceless tomes of great knowledge went -- it wasn't all accessible online, or necessarly free if it happened to be available. But for a good portion of the '90s, people who hadn't been online much, or were in denial, insisted it was out there.

There dawns the new century, and the myth of "it's all there, free" started to fade away with the old beige Pentium I and II computers. Things went the other way, though. Every day there was more information on the internet from all sorts of sources, and some of it (shock, awe) was free, or at least accessible to some degree. Is it irony or karma? Who knows? Many people are floored, now, to discover how much useful, cool, credible information is available online free of charge.

So just in time to go back to school (or to impress your friends with your innate intelligence), I've found a few sites and tricks for getting really great information online without additional tuition fees.

MIT OpenCourseWare

When I was taking my graduate courses in library science in Boston, I took a science and technology reference class that required a lot of work at MIT's library in Cambridge. I wasn't an MIT student, and there were some sideways glances when the library school students trooped in.

But the coolest thing ever: You can take MIT courses, online, free, and get access to lecture notes (and sometimes the full lectures), recommended texts, and readings by visiting MIT OpenCourseWare. There is available here a wide array of courses (what, you thought MIT just did crazy math stuff?) from aeronautics, health sciences and gender studies.

These courses are Creative Commons licensed and each course can be downloaded as a zip file, so the course content can be downloaded and accessed offline.

Stanford on iTunes

MIT not doing it for you, educationally? How about Stanford? Stanford's free educational offerings are a little different than MIT's, at least in approach. There are many audio and video lectures and presentations available from Stanford's course offerings, including humanities, health, and continuing education lectures.

The good news is this content is all available free of charge to everyone (there is special content available, but it's open only to Stanford students or affiliated folks). Downside is that it requires iTunes to access the content at this point. Not so terrible if you use iTunes, but if it is an app that sets your teeth grinding, or use Linux, you're out of luck for now. Stanford plans to offer podcast feeds later that won't require iTunes, but no word on whether that will actually happen.

Various licenses are applied to the content at Stanford, but it isn't protected by DRM, and uses the .mp4 format for the files available on iTunes.


Librarians run the world WorldCat, but it isn't narcissism that makes us use WorldCat. It's the fact that you don't need to be librarian to use it effectively (but can easily use it to ask one for help if needed!) that makes this a great knowledge tool.

If you were to search your local library's catalog either at the library or online, you'd see the books and media available at that library, and maybe those in branch libraries or in libraries in a regional network. Some states allow searching all the libraries in the state. WorldCat, as the name implies, lets you search catalogs at more than ten thousand libraries all over the world.

You might wonder why this would be particularly useful. The information is not there instantly, in many cases. Much of the content is physical and spread far and wide. It might not matter if you're searching for a copy of a current New York Times Bestseller. But what if you're looking for a book that's rare, or highly specialized? If you live in England and need a brief passage from a book on New England silver artisans, it might be a real trick to come across the information locally. WorldCat can help you locate the book with the passage you need, get a citation for the book in various formats, and contact a librarian at a library owning the book and ask if the passage can be sent to you (please bear in mind that not all documents can be scanned or photocopied, but librarians try to accomodate, honest).

The Library of Congress (LoC)

Quit the eye rolling. If your eyes are rolling, you have not checked out the LoC online, and all the amazing information and diversions it holds. The digital collections and online exhibits on various topics and periods in US history are breathtaking. Want a photo of your hometown during the Great Depression for a presentation? Need a one stop source to help your little brother research his report on the state capital while you get your term paper done using newspapers dating back to 1890?

Being that the Library of Congress is a real, live library, if you do need more information about the site, or any of the resources, it is easy to snag a librarian on the site and ask.

Your local library

Obvious, maybe? Maybe not. Your local library probably has an online catalog. But here's something that you might not realize - that online catalog associated with your physical library? There's a real good chance it has a load of online databases, filled with citations, abstracts, and full text documents from a wide variety of books, magazines and journals that are accessible from your home computer.

All it takes to get to these databases, most of the time, is a valid library card from your local library. The databases may vary depending on vendor or supplier, but they'll have a mix of credible print sources online in various formats. So your teacher said, "No online sources for this term paper!" and it's due tomorrow? Before I whack you for not planning well, rest assured that though these documents are online, they aren't online sources. They are digitized versions of the print publications -- The Wall Street Journal, or New England Journal of Medicine -- and work well in this situation.

There are many great sources of free information online, from where ever your computer might be located. There's also this great painted turtle in a large tank in California...

Tags: education, internet, learning, library, MIT, online, photos, podcast, Stanford