Unconventional Research Sites for Your Writing

writer researchI 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 are more suited to your children than adults — you decide.

It’s notable that most are free, but include advertising. The exception is BrainPOP — there are no ads, but it requires a hefty annual fee:



BrainPOP is a collection of three-five minute animated movies, learning games, quizzes, and interactive activities for kids and teens addressing a wide variety of topics such as math, science, social studies, health, art, and technology. With the assistance of two quirky moderators, colorful graphics, and a clean uncluttered interface, kids are drawn to these easy-to-understand discussions on thousands of topics they’re studying. They can search based on subject matter, video topic, Common Core or state standard, or simply browse a list of videos. Selection can be either a theme-based video or a game (called GameUp) — whichever is better suited to their learning style. Optionally, they can take a quiz and send results to the teacher. It can be purchased as a single license or a district-wide offering. Besides BrainPOP, the franchise offers BrainPOP Jr (for K-2), BrainPop Español, BrainPop Français, and BrainPop ESL.

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.

25308581 concept illustrating evolution from books to computersHow 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 youngsters (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.

Condom withSchoolsWorld.TV


The UK-based SchoolsWorld.TV is a wonderful multimedia platform of films, games, and information you probably haven’t heard about. It is aimed at everyone involved in education, including students. Topics include math, science, history, geography, music, religious education, and more.

To use this site, filter by age group and then by the type of information you seek — videos, games, or PDF.

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.

More on research:

My Research at the Library of Congress 

5 Reasons I love Research

Writer’s Tip #26: Be Accurate

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, and the thriller, To Hunt a Sub. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. The sequel to To Hunt a Sub, Twenty-four Days, is scheduled for Summer, 2017. Click to follow its progress.


8 thoughts on “Unconventional Research Sites for Your Writing

  1. What an awesome list. I am definitely bookmarking this post on my laptop, my phone and anywhere else I can think of.

    Of note, though… i relied on encyclopedias too… I’m not a grandparent yet. 🙂

  2. I love “How Stuff Works.” I can watch those all day. I’ll admit to sometimes using wikipeda as starting point. A good article there will have references and links to information sources which can lead to a full day of research.

  3. Jacqui, you are the best for info about access of info – thank you. I still use my encyclopedia (though I’m careful because some of it is outdated) and I am part of the 6% who believes that traditional news media is the best place to get well reported factual news presented by educated journalists. Some of these people put their lives at risk in order to witness event first hand.

  4. Jacqui, I scouted out a couple of the sites you mentioned. I was trying to find more information on 19th century England. No luck. 😦

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