Unconventional Research Sites for Writers


by Jacqui Murray

I read recently that 70% of millennials get their news from Facebook. Really? Isn’t Facebook a place to share personal information, stay in touch with friends and families, post pictures of weddings and birthdays? So why do students turn to it for news? And then, not two days later, I heard Twitter has reclassified their app as a news purveyor rather than a social media device. Once again: Who gets news from Twitter? Apparently a lot of adults. No surprise news shows are littered with references to listener’s tweets and the President breaks stories via his Twitter stream.

One more stat — which may explain the whole social-media-as-news-trend — and then I’ll connect these dots: Only 6% of people trust the press. I guess that’s why they prefer blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.

Research is a similar change. Your grandmother relied on encyclopedias, reference books, and museums. Your mother probably looked to Google. But, if you aren’t motivated by Google’s snazzy list of hits you have to slog through, you won’t get a lot out of it. I have a list of eight research sites that walk the line between stodgy (textbooks) and out-there (Twitter and Facebook), designed by their developers with an eye toward enticing you in and then keeping your interest. Some may be more suited to your children than adults — you decide.

It’s notable that most are free, but include advertising:


History Channel Great Speeches


The History Channel includes a large collection of the most famous historic speeches in video and audio, including dropping the atomic bomb, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Jackie Robinson on racial taunts, and the 9/11 attacks.

This is a great primary source when researching almost any topic, but especially history.  You hear original phrasing, emphasis, and often reactions to dramatic events that — without recordings — would be simply words on paper to most of them, devoid of passion, emotion, and motivation.


How Stuff Works


How Stuff Works, available on the web, iPads, and Android, is an award-winning source of unbiased, reliable, easy-to-understand explanations of how the world actually works. This includes topics such as animals, culture, automobiles, politics, money, science, and entertainment. It uses a wide variety of media (photos, diagrams, videos, animations, articles, and podcasts) to explain traditionally-complex concepts such as magnetism, genes, and thermal imaging. It also includes Top Ten lists that address pretty much any topic, such as ten historic words that don’t mean what you’d think and ten things made from recycled wood.

You’ll find thorough discussions on topics you’re researching written in an easy-to-understand manner (that was great when I had to research the magnetosphere for my recent novel). There are also add-on articles that enable you to dig deeper. For those looking for more rigor, there are quizzes that evaluate knowledge and challenge learning (such as the hardest words to spell and Who Said That).


Info Please


Info Please provides authoritative answers to questions using statistics, facts, and historical records culled from a broad overview of research materials including atlases, encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, thesauri, a calculator, the periodic table, a conversion tool, the popular Year-by-Year tracking what happened when, and the oft-quoted This Day in History.

Students 9-13 may prefer the younger-oriented Fact Monster.


NOVA Videos 


NOVA Videos (part of PBS) offer high-quality, well-researched and professionally-presented videos on a wide variety of topics such as ancient civilizations, body and brain, evolution, physics, math, planet earth, space, tech and engineering, and more. It is not filtered for youngers (though everything is G-rated), rather addresses topics with the intent of explaining them fully. Of great utility is a series of over 400 video shorts (most two-five minutes) on topics such as robots, ancient civilizations, and nature — all searchable by topic and date.

Besides video, topics may include articles, Q&A, slideshows, audio, documentary (or fact-based) TV shows, timelines, quizzes, links to other sites, and DVDs/books available for purchase.


Smithsonian Learning Lab


The Smithsonian Learning Lab curates the more than one million digital images, recordings, and text available from the Smithsonian’s nineteen museums, nine major research centers, the National Zoo, and more. The goal is to inspire the discovery and creative use of knowledge.

During searches, you can easily tag and annotate discoveries, save them into your account profile, and then share with others.




Zanran searches not only text (as is done by traditional browsers), but numerical data presented in graphs, tables, and charts and posted as an image. This huge amount of information can be difficult to find using conventional search engines, but not for Zanran (in beta).

If you’re looking for statistics or raw data on a subject, this is an excellent additional site to include in research.




Guest post contributed by Jacqui Murray. Jacqui is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman and is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, and Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers. You can find her book on her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.  

22 thoughts on “Unconventional Research Sites for Writers

  1. Thank you for good information. I do a lot of research, and it’s often hard to get good data. I rarely watch news shows, because it isn’t always news – it’s often political commentary or personal views. Even Wikipedia isn’t always accurate. I never heard of Zanran. I’ll check it out. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Research is an essential piece of writing, no matter what the genre. These are some great sources! There are also tons of forum boards specifically designed to answer questions for writers who want to be sure their details are all as accurate as possible. One that immediately comes to mind (besides the obvious Reddit) is http://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?66-Story-Research-Experts-and-Interviewees-Wanted. At forums like this, experts, specialists, and people who generally know what they’re talking about will answer anything from “how long does it take to bleed out,” to “what music was popular in 1950s Greece.”


  3. It’s difficult to trust ‘legitimate’ news agencies. FB and Twitter? I’ll pass! 😉

    Love your links, especially HowStuffWorks! It is an amazing and informative site. My three children are in their mid-twenties and early thirties and they spent much of their high school years picking up info from the site and just browsing around. (I lost several household items to ‘experiments!’ 😀 😀 )

    Good call!


  4. I’m not a millennial, but I do get a lot of news from Facebook and Twitter. Or rather, I get links to new articles and videos which my friends have posted or tweeted. Many of these links are to conventional news sites like like BBC or the Washington Post, but I would miss them if my friends weren’t circulating them. There is sooooo much news out there, it’s hard to keep up with it all.


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