24 free (and useful) websites to satiate the amateur researcher
By Bret N. Christensen
Who doesn’t like free? I mean, the very word conjures up images of … uh, well … of freedom! Freedom from debt, taxes, tyranny, and freedom from those nasty little calories found hiding in delectable chocolate truffles. I have no doubt that every day law librarians the world over get calls asking whether there’s a free site for this or that. Turns out there are hundreds of legal and general productivity websites in cyberland just waiting to be discovered and used—all free of charge! The key is knowing which sites are junk and which are golden. Following are some productivity and legal websites that I frequently use. Being librarians, I’m betting many of you have heard of (and even use) some of these websites. To those who have, kudos; to the rest, kick back and enjoy a rousing list of all things free.
General Productivity Sites
Have you been in a situation when you were at a convention but needed to be in a business meeting at work 200 miles away? Or maybe you are a vendor/trainer and want to train 30 people in 30 different states on the same piece of software and are trying to avoid redundancy. Join.me is probably the easiest resource you can use to help you in any and all such scenarios.
Join.me allows up to 250 people to be in on the same discussion at the same time (for free) and is compatible with both Windows- and Mac-based systems. Options available to participants include listening in on conversations via telephone, conducting Q&A sessions, and sharing control. The “Share Control” feature is particularly helpful in situations where tech services need to take control to make changes on a remote user’s computer or where librarians might need to reach out and physically type key words on a patron’s computer while using the online catalog because the person just doesn’t understand what “enter your key terms here” means.
Similar to join.me, freeconferencecall.com is another great service that allows up to 96 people at a time with a 6-hour limit. Planning a large-scale conference (i.e., lots and lots of people)? The first 1,000 attendees are free. Aside from the conference-call feature, two other services are worth noting—namely, the six-cents-per-minute charge for toll-free calls and the free international calling. Both are helpful tools for facilitating any meeting, be it on a large or small scale.
How many times have you spent hours creating a presentation only to not be able to send the handouts via email because of file size restrictions? This happens to me all the time. But with YouSendit, you can send files up to 40 times larger than with standard email. File size is a problem no more as you can send files upward of a gigabyte in size and know (not just hope) it was received on the other end.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I have all this librarianship knowledge; I wish there was an easy way I could share it with the rest of the world”? Turns out you can, and Screenr is the perfect vehicle to help you do it. Now instead of wishing you could share your vast knowledge, you can create five-minute screencasts and post them to YouTube, Twitter, your website, or even your own blog and show everyone that you really do have mad librarian skills. View a screencast I created using Screenr, PowerPoint, and a microphone in a little under 10 minutes at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ymjf4DRkGLQ.
Want to know a secret? Most people can’t remember long (or even short) URLs. Heck, we have a patron in our library who can’t seem to get the hang of Google. A simple solution to this is to create a QR code. What’s a QR code, you ask? It’s a funny looking barcode that can be printed on any material. Then, when scanned by a smart phone, the QR code will automatically direct the smart phone user’s browser to the specified URL. Still unclear on the concept? Here is a QR code I created at qrcode.kaywa.com to advertise my legal research blog. How might you use QR codes? Well, perhaps you want to advertise a new website or blog. You could create a QR code, print it out on a sheet of paper, and hang the QR code on a shelf in your library. Or you might even create a QR code for your office phone number or maybe even one just to say, “Have a nice day!” Print them on bumper stickers, baseball caps, or bus stop benches. Link them to your website, blog, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn account(s). However you choose to use it, know that creating your own personal QR code is quick, easy, and free!
Have you ever had attorneys come into your law library while on their way to trial or a deposition and ask whether their offices could email them documents they forgot to get before leaving the office? Maybe you are remotely attending a critical budget meeting (using join.me) and the file you need is sitting on your flash drive which, as it happens, is sitting on your bedside bureau. It’s times like these when you may get to thinking, “I wish there was a website where I could securely store important data files that I can retrieve from any computer, anywhere in the world, for free.” With Dropbox, there is! Now anyone can securely store up to two gigabytes of precious data for free. Better yet, your data can be retrieved from any computer or mobile device anywhere in the world. That’s right, anywhere. While two gigabytes may not be all that much these days, it’s probably more than enough when you’re in a bind and may be just enough to save you in an otherwise difficult situation.
In addition to being a stellar meeting scheduler system, TimeBridge also helps keep you organized. Most people I know in business have outlook accounts at work and home, a smart phone, another phone somewhere, a Blackberry, a calendar on their computer, a paper desk calendar, another paper calendar hanging on the wall in their kitchen, and probably a plethora of other places where they store important dates on electronic media. TimeBridge takes all of those dates and keeps them organized in one central place so you won’t be running all over the place the next time you have a deadline to meet or a meeting to schedule, and it won’t break your budget because TimeBridge does it all for free.
The problem with cyberspace these days is that there are so many different file formats. You’ve got bmp, dwg, emf, eps, gif, ico, jpg, pcx, png, tga, tiff, wbmp, webp, doc, and txt, not to mention the hundreds more that no mere mortal can keep track of. Good thing there is Zamzar to help sort it all out. Zamzar is another free service that can convert any image, document, or video file for free. Simply identify the file you wish to convert, select the desired conversion format, enter your email address, and click “convert” to have the converted file emailed to your inbox. Is that easy or what?! Can I get an amen?! Yeah, conversion is a beautiful thing.
Alternative Legal Research Sites
Some websites are secret because no one thought they were important enough to spread the word about. Some are secret because everyone who knows about them also knows that as soon as the secret is out, the website will be turned off or severely restricted. This site, I believe, is one of the latter. (I suspect it was once easily accessible via findlaw.com but with subsequent rewrites became lost in the shuffle). Findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html is a great free resource linking United States Supreme Court Cases from 1893 to the present. Users can find cases by citation, party name, or full text searches. If looking for something within the past five years, you can search for cases by the month and year. Easy to use and (actually) useful, I have no doubt that this resource will soon go the way of the dodo once the webmaster(s) find it has, yet again, been resurrected from parts unknown.
I love Justia. Not just for the fact that it was the first website that would help advertise my blog (for free). No, I love it because while other sites link to some primary authority, Justia includes links to all 50 states and federal primary authority. As if that isn’t enough, it breaks information down by topic and region and throws in some resources for federal legislative intent. It might not be as complete as other websites, but it is pretty good for a free site, and they never ask for donations. Well, not yet, anyway.
From a law librarian’s point of view, Hieros Gamos may not be all that great as a reference tool for legal resources. HG.org is primarily a resource to find attorneys with its worldwide law firm directory, an expert witness directory, and a law and practice directory (listing of more than 260 practice areas). What really sets this website apart is the “Featured Videos” section along the right side of the page. These videos are produced by practicing lawyers from all over the country, and they talk about all things practical legal, such as personal injury and medical malpractice cases in California, truck accident cases in Missouri, divorce and family law in New Jersey, and immigration in Florida, just to name a few topics.
Once upon a time, it was a real pain to find federal resources online. Then the government printing office got it together and created this great website that includes all things federal! We’re talking the Solomon Mines of free federal collections. There’s the U.S. Code, the U.S. Constitution, tons of stuff to help conduct a federal legislative intent search, and a whole lot of other federal records. The scuttlebutt, however, is that there is a rumor this site will soon die an ignominious death (but they’ve been saying that for more than a year, so . . . who knows). Check it out while you still can!
No less than five times each week I get phone calls from people all around the country asking if there is free access to the California codes online. Turns out there is, and here they are. Now, I have no idea what people in other states are doing with California codes or why they need them, but, as it turns out, this is a pretty good website for all 29 California codes. Caveat: these codes are about 6 months behind the update schedule, so, as with any other free resource, it is best that you check official print versions rather than relying solely on the online versions.
Just the other day, as I was getting my librarian groove on, a lady called asking if I happened to have a print copy of the 1983 California Journal of the Assembly. Seems she was trying to conduct a California legislative intent search, and she was missing that one book. As it turned out, our library was too. In a desperate, hail mary-esque attempt to help her, I dug around the internet and found this website. Not only did it have what she needed, it had what our library needed to fill gaps in our print collection. This site is particularly useful because it is broken down into three sections that are critical to conducting a California legislative intent search—Statutes, DailyJournal, and FinalHistory.
In conducting a California legislative search, the first step is to pull the California Code and locate the code’s history (found at the end of the section—looks something like Stats. 1983, c. 23). The next step is to use the California Statutes and Amendments to the code referencing the chapter (“c”) number. If you don’t happen to have the print version, you can pull up the Statutes folder to locate these resources from 1850-2007. Subsequent steps include looking in the California Journals of the Senate and/or Assembly. Again, if you don’t happen to have the print versions, you can use the DailyJournal (includes both Senate and Assembly Journals from 1881-2005) and FinalHistory (covers the Final History reports from 1850-2008) folders. The problem with all this is that while it’s mind-blowingly awesome that these resources exist for free, because they are so helpful and useful they’ll probably eventually become a thing of the past . . . so let’s keep this one on the Q.T.
Once upon a time, when you had to do a California legislative intent search on a budget, you had little to no choice but to hunker down with the print copies and slog your way through the morass that is a legislative intent search. (OK, it’s not that bad, but it can be pretty hairy.) With the advent of the internet, however, the California Legislature saw fit to post more of its materials online. This site includes the basic history of all bills since 1999, as well as any analysis the legislator or staffers provided, and it has a handy option to contact a bill author (to ask them what in blazes they were thinking when they were drafting the legislation). All in all, this is a pretty good free site to help with the legislative research process.
Every once in a while there will be that one great website that everyone loves and uses, which, in the course of a website redesign or for some inexorable reason, either ceases to exist or loses its key related features simply because the webmaster(s) chose to not link to them anymore. Such is the case with Google Scholar, which has listings for hundreds of scholarly literature resources, law reviews, medical journals, and a whole lot of other academic stuff. What caught my eye was that while I was searching for law reviews (key word: “three strikes”), one of the results was from none other than HeinOnline. I love these guys, and what was particularly cool was that I could do some additional searching inside Hein via Google. Now, I don’t know if this was an intended added feature (searching Hein for free), but while it lasts, it’s a very helpful feature for those on a tight budget.
The problem with researching California regulations online (for free) is that there is no one site that has all of the regulations in a single location. However, Calregs comes pretty close to having it all with 27 of 28 regulations (Title 24 is missing from the list). While there is other stuff on this site, the meat is the regulations (click “List of CCR titles”).
I suspect it is because I am a law librarian that I have been imbued with an uncanny ability to conjure up obscure details of information to help library patrons in their respective hours of need. It causes me no small degree of personal dismay, then, that I cannot figure out why all of the California regulations are prohibited from being located on one site. I guess I shouldn’t complain (too much) since Title 24 is still free and available for the taking. Published once every three years, bsc.ca.gov lists Title 24 in all its glory.
Presently, I live and work in sunny Southern California. This is important if only for the fact that a while back (in the dead of winter), I had someone call me from cold and stormy Detroit asking if there was a free website where he could locate city codes for, of all places, Memphis, Tennessee. While Municode doesn’t have listings for every single city in the United States, it does have one for Memphis. Utilizing the free resources on this site, people can select a single state from the drop-down box at the top of the screen, or, for those who are not geographically challenged, they can also click the image of the state of their choice from the map located in the middle of the page and then click the link for the city of interest. It’s just that simple.
Not too long ago, we had a young lady come to our law library asking how long it took for a case to go from initial filing to judgment. Seems she was a reporter looking for some statistics that are not common in most county law libraries—until now. This site accumulates all data available based on all things civil and criminal filings and provides that data to visitors for free.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve received phone calls from people all over the country asking whether there was a website with free, easy-to-use sample business and legal forms. The problem is that most websites that offer free, easy-to-use sample business and legal forms have a short shelf life because competing publishers buy and then close those websites. I’m guessing the people who maintain lectlaw.com are independently wealthy because it’s been around for quite some time. Divided into three main areas, the site has something for everyone; from seasoned litigants to the greenest of greenhorn lawyers, from 1Ls to laypersons—it’s got a lot. I should point out an important caveat, though: as with any forms that are not your own, be sure to research the laws from your own jurisdiction before using any of these forms in real life.
This is a unique website in that its listings are not merely random sample business contracts. Rather, they are complete random sample business contracts between some of the more well-known companies in the world. Dang, but this is the mother lode of free sample contracts! There is a licensing agreement between Yahoo and Microsoft, an asset purchase agreement between General Motors and Clutch Operation Company, a location rental agreement between Martha Stewart and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., and a stock purchase agreement between Jupitermedia Corp. and Getty Images, just to mention a few of the hundreds of agreements all free for the taking.
When I was young(er), a favorite play location for my friends and I was up in the branches of the tallest, bushiest tree in the area. We’d have lunch up there on hot summer days, throw water balloons at passing girls, and sit in the branches telling ghost stories on starlit nights. It was a wretched day, then, when our tree was torn down to make way for a new sewer line. We protested, made speeches, submitted a signed petition (to our parents), and stood arm in arm in brotherhood in front of the tractors that came to tear down our tree—all for naught. As I reflect on our adventures with that tree, it comes as no small surprise that one of my friends recently began practicing arbor law. Who knew our escapades would create a staunch advocate of trees? Turns out there are scads of attorneys who practice tree law, and this website is chock full of articles to help the budding arbor advocate learn about all things relating to tree law.
Just the other day, I had a patron come into our law library looking for an expert witness specializing in meteorology. Seems this person had recently been planning a family reunion. As part of the planning process, she had consulted with the local television station as to what the weather might be on a certain day. Apparently, she had been told the whole week would be sunny and warm and so planned her event accordingly. As it turned out, however, it was not sunny and warm but very wet (as was the reunion). Fueled by a serious case of righteous indignation with an eye toward litigation, she elicited my mad librarian skills in her search for a weather expert. In less time than it took to tell you this story, I hopped on national-experts.com and searched under the keyword “weather.” In mere seconds, she had three excellent resources from which to choose and was off and running with her case, and I had another satisfied customer under my belt with the help of yet another excellent (and free) online resource.
Have At It!
So there you have it. Twenty-four hot, fresh (and gratis, to boot) websites that you can tell your patrons you slaved long and hard to discover solely for their benefit and enjoyment. Soon your patrons will be dancing in the streets and singing your praises. Songs will be written extolling your virtues. Your boss will insist on giving you a raise—or maybe not. At the very least, you’ll look like the information god your mother always thought you were.
Bret N. Christensen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is public services librarian at Riverside County Law Library in Riverside, California.