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Lost in Cyberspace

Internet a gargantuan reference desk

This article was originally published on June 20, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

While even the experts are struggling to explain where the Internet is headed and what it may become – and reminding us over and over that the 'Net is still in its infancy – what it is in the here and now is the largest, most amazing reference tool in human history.

Besides the obvious online resources that have replaced the local library for students facing daunting homework assignments (sites such as Encyclopedia Britannica, The Smithsonian, National Geographic and Library of Congress) are literally millions of specialized Web sites offering either primary research materials (local historical societies, university archives, museum sites) or links to other information outlets.

And then there are the specialty sites that help you find information that, in the era before the Internet, could have taken hours, days or even longer.

For instace, say you're moving to a new town and you want to find a doctor. The American Medical Association has an online search engine to help you do just that.

Or you find yourself in a bit of sticky situation, and realize you need a lawyer – the American Bar Association has a referral service with an online search engine.

Looking for a local soup kitchen where you can volunteer? Shine is a reference of more than 650,000 charitable organizations. Just about every museum, every local food bank, every local arts organization can be found in Shine's search engine.

Less useful is Shine's categories structure, which seems to have far too many levels to find what you want and lacks the ease of use of, say, Yahoo. And if you simply run a search for an organization, once you click on it you aren't offered links to the categories that entry is filed under to help you find similar organizations.

In addition, most organizations (okay, none that we tried – ranging from Planned Parenthood to Feminists for Life, Computer Museum of America to the Boy Scouts of America) had descriptions of their purpose; few had current (or any) financial information or records, nor were any links to the organizatons' own Web sites found. Instead, Shine seems to rely on members of these groups to know that Shine exists and update the database themselves.

Shine does claim to offer secure online donations to all charitable organizations in its database (via credit or debit card), although, being broke this week, I didn't try that option.

There's a lot of potential here for creating one-stop donating (or even just learning more about a specific charity), but it's not very polished or truly useful yet.

If you want to get ahold of a celebrity or public official, has a fairly large database of contacts. From government to entertainment, media to big business, lists thousands of folks you might want to send a fan letter or gripe to. Their database isn't comprehensive yet – Paul McCartney is listed, but not Nancy Sinatra; Apple CEO Steve Jobs is listed, but not Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. And you don't actually get the person's e-mail address for your own use later; instead, you use a Web-based form, and their server then sends your letter to the hidden address.

Still, for a good source of tracking down various famous people, is a good starting point.

Finally, to help you organize all your information sources, you can set up your own customizable portal on While most of the major search engines (Yahoo, Netscape, Excite) allow you to set up your own customized portal with the links you want, none have made it as smooth or transparent as You can add any URL into any category – not so different from your bookmarks or favorites list on your personal browser, just a sight more attractive and available to you from any computer with Web access (so if you want to use the same set of bookmarks at home and work, you can set it up on