Reference Sources

"There are times when I think that the ideal library is composed solely of reference books.  They are like understanding friends, always ready to change the subject when you have had enough of this or that."

                                J. Donald Adams

Reference sources can provide general background information (facts, definitions, dates, details), assistance in focusing your topic, quick access to important factual and statistical information, and references to other sources of information.  It is therefore a good place to begin your research.  Reference materials include almanacs, handbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries.  Reference books are separated from circulating materials because of their important role in library research.

Few reference books are meant to be read from cover to cover.  Instead, readers consult them for concise topic summaries in all subject areas, as well as for statistical, geographical, and biographical summaries.  In addition, reference materials direct you to related sources and provide important supporting data in the form of statistics, definitions of technical terms, and tools for analyzing, broadening, or narrowing a topic.

The search for information on almost any topic might well begin and end in the Reference Collection.  If the subject is completely new to you, a general encyclopedia is a good place to begin. 

 The World Book Encyclopedia set

Once you know more, a subject encyclopedia can offer more specific background information on a topic from the perspective of a particular discipline such as philosophy, biology, or history:

 Encyclopedia of Philosophy  Encyclopedia of Ocean Sciences  Oxford Encyclopedia of the Civil War

Even consulting a subject encyclopedia on the Civil War may be too broad, and additional subject encyclopedias dealing with specific aspects of the Civil War might be necessary:   

 Civil War Medicine  Civil War Shipwrecks  Book: Women During the Civil War


Encyclopedia articles often conclude with a list of sources for additional reading.  Articles tend to include important names, dates, and events that may be associated with a topic and provide clues for further investigation

Sherlock Holmes looking pensive, spoking a pipe


This information can help you focus your topic, and can provide words that can be used as keys to other reference tools and to online databases, which in turn lead to books, articles, and other information sources. 

For additional information on the various types of reference sources, check out this handout.


Scientific Information Literacy Modules
Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
Unit 3:  Information Formats
Unit 4:  Defining Search Terms
Unit 5: Conducting a Literature Review
Unit 6: Science Information Sources

History Information Literacy Modules
copyright 2011 Napa Valley College

updated June 14, 2011, by Nancy McEnery, Reference Librarian-Instructor