Need Reference Apps for Your Smartphone or Tablet?

In August, I read EduTopics blog entitled “Prep Your iPad for College: Best Apps for College Students.” Most of the fourteen apps EduTopics listed focused on student productivity. I quickly commented on the post with the names of a few good reference apps. There are more than the few I listed in my comments which would be useful to students and librarians based on the types of questions I received at the reference desk. And thus, that Edutopic post inspired this post.

Below is a list of smartphone and tablet products, both Apple- and Android-based that I think are the best reference apps currently available. I am not ranking the products; they will be presented in alphabetical order.

  1. EbscoHost (free)–The EbscoHost app allows users to search through EbscoHost databases, save PDFs and HTML documents, e-mail results, and save results for later off-line access. However, for it to work, the user will need to first visit their local library and search an EbscoHost database and scroll to the bottom to e-mail themselves a key code for the app version. This can serve as an alternative method of accessing EbscoHost databases if your library does not offer a mobile version. Not available for iPad. Links: Apple Android
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica (Apple, free download with a $1.99 a month subscription; Android, $4.99)–All the great information from the print Encyclopedia Britannica is here, with the addition of “LinkMaps” to show related articles and more visual content. Granted, the Wikipedia app offers the same features for free, but anyone can submit information to Wikipedia leaving room for errors such as missing information, bias, and misinformation; this is less likely to happen with Britannica. Links: Apple Android
  3. Factbooks–Two choices here:
    1. The CIA World Factbook ($1.99)–This app provides basic information about all the countries and international organizations of the world. It includes a photo gallery and PDF maps. As all the data is loaded on the device, it does not require an internet connection to work. Links: Apple Andriod
    2. The World Factbook 2012 ($1.99)–The app provides “up-to-date” detailed information on all of the world’s countries, including the government, economy, ethic groups, natural resources, etc. It also features an atlas and a “country comparison feature” to see how countries rank against each other. Like the other option, all the data is available off-line. Links: Apple only
  4. Google Earth (free)–Google Earth is great for obtaining maps, but it can do much more. It will provide photos of the location being viewed, suggests places to visit, and provided virtual tours of major cities. If a viewer happens to be using an iPhone 4s or iPad 2 or later or Android device, Google Earth offers 3D tours of several major cities. Links: Apple Android
  5. Google Translate (free)–There are many translation apps and I’ve found this to be the best of the free ones. Google Translate translates between sixty-four languages, seventeen of which one can speak the words and have them translated on-screen and twenty-four of which the app will provide spoken translations. It also accommodates non-Latin script translations. When I’ve tested the app for languages I know, it accurately translates most words, but can have issues when it comes to conjugating verbs (ex. it always defaults to the verb stem or present tense). Links: Apple Android
  6. Internet Movie Database (free)–Admittedly, this is not the most scholarly app, but who doesn’t want to check something about a movie they are watching? Maybe an actor looks familiar, but you can’t place them. This app helps with that! Also, it can provide great basic information to a film studies student. Links: Apple Android
  7. Math Ref* (basic, free; premium, $.99)–Math Ref has is a multi-award winning application. It contains mathematical equations for physics, chemistry, business, statistics and all math subjects. The free version features 600 formulas, equations, and tips. The paid version features over 1,400. Links: Apple Android
  8. Merriam Webster Dictionary* (basic, free; premium, $3.99)–This is the best dictionary app! It offers both typing and voice search. Once a word is found, it provides the following information: sounds and visual pronunciation, word types, definitions, examples of use, when the word was first used, synonyms, and antonyms. The paid version removes ads, offers biographic and geographic entries, and features some foreign words and phrases. Merriam Webster also offers paid apps for their collegiate, medical, law, synonym and antonym, Spanish-English, and French-English dictionaries. Links: Apple Android (The links in the sentence are for Apple’s iTunes; for the click here for the link to the Android master list.)
  9. Weather App–Weather varies from season to season and in some places it can range greatly on a day-to-day basis (think Missouri). Being able to quickly check the forecast without turning on the TV or a computer is great! However, Apple’s default weather app only shows the highs and lows. Downloading a second weather app, such as Accuweather or one from a local news station, is better. These apps provide radar, hour-by-hour forecasts, weather warnings, and more. I would strongly recommend downloading on of these apps. Links: Apple Android
  10. WhitePages (free)–Sometimes a student needs the phone number to order pizza. Other times a reference librarian might need to look up a business number for a patron. This app allows one to search both business and personal phone numbers and offers a reverses phone and address directory. Granted, one can go online for the same information, but the app streamlines it and is quicker to use. Links: Apple Android

While the apps I listed are all good for general reference, there are also subject specific ones that could be downloaded. WebMD provides free medical information. Audubon Bird ($4.99 Links: Apple Android) and Star Walk for Apple or Sky Map for Android are great examples of science apps. The SciVerse ScienceDirect (Elsevier) app offer searching within its database if your institution holds a subscription (free Links: Apple Android). For those studying law, Black’s Law Dictionary, 9th Edition is available for $54.99 (Apple only). There are also tons of both free and paid apps for religious texts and foreign language dictionaries which I did not evaluate for this review, as most don’t seem to be from a known publisher (thus use with caution!).

Lastly, I’ve mentioned two apps offered by database vendors. Besides EbscoHost and ScienceDirect, Gale databases also offer an app (AccessMyLibrary). However, the app has crashed during searching on both platforms every time I or my friends have tried it. I don’t recommend it!

As an addition, as I was working on this post one of my friends posted another relevant link on Facebook about apps which I thought I’d share. It is “50 Apps Students Will Be Using in Your Classroom” by Edudemic. It covers productivity and organization, reading and writing, reference, safety, and STEM-themes apps. As you might notice if you look at the article, we picked several of the same apps for reference and some of the STEM apps they mentioned I recommended as reference apps. This post has been a work-in-progress for several weeks.

Does anyone have another general or subject-specific reference app you have found useful? If so, would you recommend it?

* Links used are for the free version. Check iTunes or Google Play for paid versions.

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