Reference Resources

By Lauren Pressley and Audra Eagle Yun

You have probably noticed that most libraries have a separate section of the building devoted to reference sources and services. But have you ever been told what makes those books special or causes them to be treated differently? Reference sources are authoritative works that help you locate information about people, facts, and ideas. These sources can help you find the date of an important event, major achievements of an individual or organization, or a definition of a term or concept. These books are often used to find specific facts, rather than written to be read cover-to-cover, so they are often held in a special part of the library to be used for a short period of time rather than checked out to a user over a period of days.

This section of the library often also has a desk that is staffed by a reference librarian. Reference librarians can help you with a number of steps of the research process from coming up with a good question to ask, to finding useful sources, to evaluating websites. Further, as libraries add electronic versions of reference sources, a librarian can help you navigate both the print and online reference collections to find just the piece of information you need.

Reference sources are typically used in two different ways. One use is to get background information on a topic that you are researching. For example, if you use Wikipedia to find out the general history of an event you will be writing about, you are using Wikipedia as a reference source to find out the context of the topic you are researching. This is not information that you’ll paraphrase, quote, or need to cite in your work, as the research you are doing at this point in the process is more to help you learn what information you’ll need to find along the way. Library-owned reference sources often provide this same type of information, but often in academic sources and with a higher level of reliability.

The other way references sources tend to be used is to find specific facts to support a point being made in a paper. For example, if you needed to find the percentage of mothers age 20-25 who have a college degree, you would need a reliable source, and a reference librarian could help you locate it and cite it. If you were to look on the open web, you might find a number you would consider using, but you would probably still need to check with a reference librarian to verify the source is reputable and trustworthy.

With these two approaches to reference sources you will often find yourself in the reference department as you start a paper, looking for the general context for your topic, and at the very end of writing your paper, as you look for specific details to bolster your argument. This chapter will explain the types of sources you are likely to find.

Why Reference Sources?

In the Stacks

Reference sources can be a great place to start your research because they provide quick, authoritative introductions to a topic. They offer summarized, factual information in a clear and organized way. Common reference sources that provide this type of information are encyclopedias and dictionaries. Reference sources, such as encyclopedias or literary criticisms, will often cite additional sources such as periodical articles and books. Further, they often provide a good bibliography for you to explore in your research.

What makes them different from other sources?

One unique feature of reference sources is that they are not meant to be read from cover to cover; in fact, they are written for easy discovery of exactly the facts and figures you want to know! Reference sources often include an index by topic and online reference sources are easy to search using keywords.

What are some examples?

There are many types of reference sources, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauri, directories, and almanacs. More broadly, reference sources can also include bibliographies, manuals, handbooks, atlases, and gazetteers. You can find these resources in print and online.


Encyclopedias are more varied than you might think. You might have used a general one in elementary school or high school. You might have heard people refer to Encyclopedia Britannica as the “gold standard” for encyclopedias. However, you might not have come across a subject-specific encyclopedia before. You can find encyclopedias on nearly any discipline from philosophy to american pop culture. The thing that all encyclopedias have in common is that they include brief, factual information about topics or concepts. They often provide images and references to additional works. Most are several volumes long, though sometimes a very specific one might have just enough content for one or two volumes. Another option, Wikipedia, which is a web encyclopedia with user-contributed entries, is a good starting place for your research because it points to other reference sources.


Dictionaries are like encyclopedias, but instead of providing a contextual background to a subject, a dictionary list terms in alphabetical order and gives each word’s meaning. Some dictionaries include equivalent words in another language, such as an English to Spanish dictionary. Others are subject specific, diving into the minutiae of discipline-specific language. Most dictionaries are just one volume long, but some begin to look more like encyclopedias. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, contains 20 volumes, but is really a dictionary. In addition to the definition of each word, the OED contains all the definitions a word has had over time as well as references to the first few times any word has been documented as used.


Thesauri provide synonyms for words with related meanings. You might choose to use a thesaurus when you are looking for alternative definitions to words you find yourself using frequently. Thesauri often include antonyms, or words with the opposite meaning of the one you look up, which can also be helpful when trying to determine alternative ways to say the same message.


Bibliographies help provide information about various ideas by providing references to books, films, or recordings that deal with the topic. Bibliographies typically include citations that reference the work, author, publisher, and place of publication. Sometimes they include annotations, or brief summaries of the works they cite as well. This information is not something you would cite in your own research, but is rather more like a roadmap that points you to the sources that will be useful in your research.

Handbooks and Manuals

Handbooks and Manuals contain practical information on a topic. You might think of this very book to be a type of handbook or manual on how to do research. Handbooks on academic disciplines are gateways into the thinking of the field. Manuals are similar in that they contain practical information, but they are more instructional in nature. Manuals come with most electronic devices that you purchase, but you might also find manuals explaining how to use specific resources or how to approach skill-based work in various fields.


Almanacs include calendars, basic facts, and statistical information about people, places, and events. These sources contain specific, detailed information you might need to have to cite in a paper. For example, if you were writing a paper on Tibetan culture and wanted to find a list of the holidays celebrated there and when they occur, you might look for a Tibetan almanac. If you wanted to find how many women live above poverty for a sociology paper, you might want to look for an almanac of the United States.

Biographical sources

Biographies and other biographical sources contain biographical information about individuals such as birth and death dates and major accomplishments in a certain field. If you have a paper to write on a theory or a point in history, you could use biographical sources to find background information for a subargument or point in your paper. If you are writing an entire paper on an individual, you will likely need more information than you’d find in a biography in the reference section. However, a biography in the reference section will contain references to other sources that you would find useful in your research process.

Atlases and Gazetteers

Atlases and Gazetteers are two sources that you can primarily think about as related to geography. Both provide a variety of maps and historical geographic information. These are useful if you need to understand where something is situated in the world, but can also be useful to see how lines have been redrawn over time. For example, if you were writing a paper about a specific county over time, using atlases from the past or atlases that show shifting lines over time would help you understand if you also need to be researching surrounding counties because at one point in time the county you are interested in covered that land area. Gazetteers also include geographical dictionaries to define places and locations.


Due to the internet, directories are less common than they used to be, but sometimes still answer questions you can’t answer on the web. Directories include information about people or organizations such as addresses, contact information, company services and products, and sometimes biographical information, or company histories. This can be helpful if you are trying to understand what organizations exist that deal with the issue you are researching or if you know you will need to find specialized information and you need to determine what groups exist that might be able to provide it.

How do I find reference sources?

Your library has reference materials online and in print. Print reference collections are typically made available near the reference desk. Some reference sources are shelved near the desk, where you can find them yourself if you’d like, and others may be behind the reference desk. Although most printed reference sources do not circulate (they cannot be checked out), you can easily photocopy or digitally scan and save the information you need.

You will also notice that there are some reference books shelved in the main library bookshelves, or stacks. These can often be checked out. These are shelved with the main library books because the librarians have determined that those specific books are not critical to most of the reference questions that people ask, because they will be more useful if people are able to check them out, or because there is a newer version of the source that is kept in the reference department.

You can find reference sources by doing a search in the library catalog for a specific title or type of reference work. You can also limit your catalog search so that your search location is “reference.” For a refresher on how to search, check out Chapter 4. The main thing to keep in mind when searching for a reference source is to start with a much broader search than you would if you were looking for a regular book. This is because the set of books in the reference department is much smaller than the total collection. If you were to search with a specific search string that returned, say, 10 books from a collection of over a library’s collection of million books, using that same search string to search the much smaller reference collection of, say, 50,000 books might not find any that fit the search string.

Another reason to search for a broad term is that many reference books are very general, but contain specific information. These books can’t be listed in the catalog under every specific thing that they cover in detail, so they’re just listed generally. If I were interested in learning more about a feminist approach to social epistemology in philosophy, I can guarantee I won’t find a reference source on that topic using the search string feminist AND “social epistemology” AND philosophy. However, if I search for philosophy, or maybe even “social epistemology,” I’ll find an encyclopedia on the general topic that includes a section on exactly my topic.

Further, many reference sources are going online. Online reference sources are usually listed on the database page of your library’s website. These aren’t databases in the typical sense of a database of scholarly, peer-reviewed articles. These are in databases of reference sources. For example, you can use the Encyclopedia Britannica in paper in the reference department, or you can use the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica. The online version will actually have different information. It can be updated more regularly to be more current, include newer topics, and can go into more detail because there is no space constraint.

Some online reference databases will search across multiple resources. For example, you can search for “Maya Angelou” quickly and easily across multiple biographical reference sources online, instead of browsing one printed biographical reference source at a time. For more information on using databases, check out Chapter 7.



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