Reference Services and Sources

Learn about: Reference services, selecting the right reference source, types of reference sources, where and how to find reference sources, and reference sources available via the Web.

Reference Services

The function of libraries is three-fold. Libraries acquire information, organize that information in a way it can be retrieved, and disseminate the information the library has acquired. Reference services fulfills this last function. Reference services may vary from library to library, but most libraries have an information or Reference Desk where assistance from a librarian is available. Almost all libraries also provide reference services via the telephone and in many libraries you can email your reference question, or Ask a Librarian, to a reference librarian who will e-mail you back with the answers.

There are three main types of reference assistance:

  • Assistance or instruction in the use of the library, including location of materials, use of the catalog, use of computers to access information, and the use of basic reference sources.
  • Assistance in identifying library materials needed to answer a question.
  • Providing brief, factual answers to questions, such as addresses, statistics, phone numbers, etc. that can be quickly located.

Reference Sources

Reference sources such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, atlases, etc. are research tools that can help you with your paper or project. Reference sources provide answers to specific questions, such as brief facts, statistics, and technical instructions; provide background information; or direct you to additional information sources. In most libraries, reference sources do not circulate and are located in a separate reference collection. This practice makes reference sources readily available and easily accessible.

Reference sources are designed to be consulted rather than read through. Their design is generally dependent on the type of information and treatment provided. Reference materials can be arranged alphabetically, topically, or chronologically. Many will contain cross listed information and more than one index. If it is not obvious how a reference source is organized, take a moment to look through the explanatory or how-to-use information, which is usually presented at the beginning of the book, or in HELP screens for online products.

There are thousands of reference sources available that cover practically every subject. Although the term reference "book" is frequently used, reference sources can be books, serials, on-line databases or the Internet. A large part of using reference sources well is choosing the right one.

Despite the wide variety available, reference sources can be categorized into a handful of groups. Think about the kind of information you need and how you will use it. If you are unsure which reference tool is best suited to your information need, a reference librarian will be able to assist you.

Quick guide for selecting the right type of reference source (Collins, 151):

For information about... Choose...
Words Dictionaries
General information/Overview of topic Encyclopedias
Names & addresses of people, organizations, institutions, companies Directories
Profiles of people Biographical Dictionaries
Places/Maps Gazetteers or Atlases
Facts and Statistics Almanacs
Formula, Tables, How-To-Do-It Handbooks and Manuals
A person's work Reviews or Criticisms
Dates, outlines, historical timelines Historical tables, Chronologies, Historical yearbooks
Periodical Articles Indexes or Abstracts
Books and other sources Bibliographies or Guides to Literature...

Types of Reference Tools

Two major categories of reference materials are general and subject. General sources include all subjects and present overviews of topics. Reference materials focused on specific subjects can provide more in-depth coverage.

There are reference sources that provide information on specific subjects as well as general sources that provide information on many subjects. In general, reference sources are either general or subject specific. If you need an overview of a subject, perhaps a general information source will suit your needs. If you need specialized information, a subject specific tool may be better suited.

The following reference sources and others are available in the main Reference Collection on Level 4, and/or via the Internet.

Dictionaries

Dictionaries provide information about words.

  • General dictionaries are the most familiar to us. You may even own one. This group includes Webster's International Dictionary, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. These sources generally provide definitions, pronunciations, syllabication, and usage.
  • Historical dictionaries provide the history of a word from its introduction into the language to the present. The Oxford English Dictionary is an excellent example of this type of dictionary.
  • Etymological dictionaries are dictionaries which emphasize the anaylsis of components of words and their cognates in other languages. These dictionaries emphasize the linguistic and grammatical history of the word usage. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology is an example of an etymological dictionary.
  • Period or scholarly specialized dictionaries focus on a particular place or time period. For example, try the Dictionary of Alaskan English if you would like to know when the word "cheechako" was first used.
  • Foreign language dictionaries are fairly self-explanatory. We've all looked up words in a French or Spanish or other Western European language. Don't forget other wonderful dictionaries, such as the Yup'ik Eskimo Dictionary or the Inupiat Eskimo dictionary.
  • Subject dictionaries focus on word definitions in a subject area, such as finance, law, botany, electronics, physics, etc.
  • Other dictionaries include dictionaries of slang, abrreviations, synonyms, antonyms, abbreviations, acronyms, reversals, rhyming, idioms, phrases, and guides to correct usage. Dictionary of Acronyms and Abbreviations, The Macmillan Dictionary of Historical Slang, Roget's II: The New Thesaurus, The American Language, Strunk's Elements of Style.

Dictionaries, like other reference sources, may belong to more than one category. For example, an English-Russian engineering dictionary is both a foreign language and a subject dictionary.

Dictionaries may be abridged or unabridged. Abridged dictionaries are smaller and contained the most commonly used words. Unabridged dictionaries try to include all words in current usage. Like other reference sources, dictionaries may become outdated as language evolves. Care should be taken to carefully identify the publication date and focus of the dictionary selected. General dictionaries begin with LC call numbers starting with AG. Specialized dictionaries will have subject specific call numbers.

Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias provide general background information; they are a good place to start researching a topic that you know little about. Large subject areas or disciplines are covered in broad articles that explain basic concepts. These overview articles often contain references to more specific aspects of the larger topic and may include a bibliography that leads you to more in-depth sources. Encyclopedias may be general or subject specific.

  • General encyclopedias usually arrange articles alphabetically by topic. Look for an accompanying index which may list cross-references to other articles. Included in this category are Encyclopaedia Britannica (29 volumes), The Cambridge Encyclopedia , Encyclopedia Americana, and the Columbia Encyclopedia. General encyclopedia LC call numbers begin with AE.
  • Subject encyclopedias are available for almost every academic discipline. They provide more in-depth and technical information than general encyclopedias. Subject encyclopedias generally assume some prior knowledge of the subject. There is no general rule for how these tools are arranged. Look for an index. A few examples of subject encyclopedias include the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Encyclopedia of World Art, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Subject encyclopedias will have subject specific call numbers.

Directories

Directories provide names, addresses, affiliations, etc. of people, organizations, or institutions. They can be used to verify addresses, name spellings, and provide contact information. As in other reference sources, directories may be general or focused on a particular subject.

Biographical Dictionaries

Biographical dictionaries contain short articles about people's lives. Biography resources have call numbers that begin with CT.

  • General biographical dictionaries include Current Biography, Dictionary of American Biography, Who's Who, Encyclopedia of World Biography, etc.
  • Subject biographical dictionaries may focus on a subject area or group. These sources include Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Contemporary Authors, Biographical Dictionary of Psychology , New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Women of Science, etc.

Gazetteers or Atlases

Geographic information is located in gazetteers, atlases and maps. Geography resources have call numbers that begin with G.

  • Atlasescontain collections of maps. They provide information on geographical/political changes. There are world, national, and thematic atlases and these may be current or historical.
    • World atlases include National Geographic Atlas of the World.
    • National atlases: National Atlas of the United States, Atlas of the American Revolution.
    • Thematic atlases focus on a specific subject area, such as astronomy or agriculture. Examples include, The Oxford Economic Atlas of the World and the Environmental Atlas of Alaska.
  • Gazetteersare sometimes referred to as geographical dictionaries and provide descriptions of places, but no maps.
    • General gazetteers include Webster's New Geographical Dictionary, The Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World, Gazetteer of Undersea Features, The World Gazetteer , etc.
    • Regional gazetteers, such as Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, by D. Orth, focus on a specific geographical region and are good places to look if you want to know the location of a town, its population, or where its name came from.

Sometimes atlases and gazetteers are combined, as in the Alaska Atlas and Gazetteer, by DeLorme Mapping, which publishes similar products for the other states.

Almanacs

Almanacs contain statistics and facts about countries, events, personalities, or subjects. Almanac resources have call numbers that begin with AY.

  • General almanacs include the Statistical Abstract of the United States, The New York Public Library Desk Reference, World Almanac (an American focus), Information Please Almanac (print ed. called Time Almanac), Whitaker's Almanak (United Kingdom focus).
  • Subject almanacs include The Weather Almanac, The Almanac of Renewable Energy, Political Reference Almanac, Alaska Almanac, and more.

Handbooks/Manuals

Handbooks and manuals are subject area tools. Handbooks provide facts, terms, concepts, movements, etc. of a topic. Manuals provide detailed instructions on a particular subject, such as how-to-do something or how something works.

  • Handbooks: Handbook of North American Indians, Guide to Alaska Trees, Words and Ideas: A Handbook for College Writing, Handbook of Mathematical Formulas, MLA Handbook For Writers of Research Papers.
  • Manuals: Manual of Photography, Manual for Environmental Impact Evaluation, Alaska Craftsman Home Building Manual, United States Government Manual.

Review & Criticism Sources

These tools provide reviews or critiques of a person's work.

  • General: Book Review Digest (OCLC FirstSearch, hereafter called FirstSearch), MLA (FirstSearch), New York Times Book Review, Contemporary Literary Criticism.
  • Subject: Children's Literature Review, Popular Music Record Reviews.

Historical Tables, Chronologies, Historical Yearbooks

Historical tables and chronologies pesent historical facts in different formats. Historical tables provide facts chronologically in columns with each column representing another geographical area or other major area, such as history, economics, religions. etc. Chronologies use narrative form to present facts. Historical tables and chronologies may span long or very short time periods. Historical yearbooks provide facts and statistics for a single year and may be published annually.

  • Historical Tables: The Timetables of History, Historical Tables, 58 BC-AD 1985.
  • Chronologies: Chronology of World History, The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies, Chronology of the Expanding World, 1492-1762, A Chronology of the People's Republic of China from October 1, 1949, Annals of European Civilization, 1501-1900.
  • Historical Yearbooks: The Statesman's Year-Book.

Indexes & Abstracts

Indexes and abstracts lead to additional sources of periodical articles. Indexes only provide author, title, and subject information. Abstracts tend to be more descriptive. Some online index databases also include the full-text of the article.

  • General: Reader's Guide to Periodic Index (FirstSearch), Book Review Index, Periodicals Abstracts (FirstSearch).
  • Subject: Art Abstracts (FirstSearch), New York Times Index (ABI Inform), Biography Index (FirstSearch), Chemical Abstracts.

Bibliographies

Bibliographies lead to other information sources. They are lists of books and other materials that provide author, title, and publication information. Annotated bibliographies also include a brief description or summary of the item. Bibliographies are available on almost every topic and may focus on specific persons, groups, subjects, or time periods. Many bibliographies are selective and do not attempt to include all publications. Bibliographies are sometimes referred to as "Guides to the Literature ..."

Examples: American Fiction, 1774-1850, Bibliography of Education, Utilization of Wood Residues: An Annotated Bibliography, A Bibliography of Sir Walter Scott, MLA Bibliography (FirstSearch), Current Bibliographies in Medicine (NLM), Equity Issues in Science and Math (State of AK, Dept of ED), Alutiiq Ethnographic Bibliography (ANKN).

Ready Reference

The Ready Reference Collection contains reference sources that are used most frequently. The Ready Reference shelves are located adjacent to the Reference Desk. The collection includes reference tools such as The Encyclopedia of Associations, The Encyclopedia of Associations, The Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Style guides (MLA, APA, Chicago), a thesaurus, The Physician's Desk Reference, Alaska phone directories, Black's Law Dictionary, World Almanac, The Merck Manual of Medical Information, Zip Code Directories, etc.

Where to find Reference Materials

All materials in the Reference Collection can be found by searching the library catalog. Once you determine what type of reference source you need, simply do a subject or keyword search for that tool. All items with a REF location code in the call number are located in the main Reference Collection on Level 4 (main floor). The Alaska Collection (Level 2) and Government Documents Collection (Level 5) also have Reference Collections, and their location codes are AK REF and DOCS REF respectively.

Try a subject search such as "dictionaries" or "bibliographies".

Or, try a subject search on your field of interest and look for reference subheadings.

For Example:

From the BROWSE search in Goldmine type in your term(s), then click on Subjects.

SubHeading_1.jpg

Now look for types of reference sources: bibliographies, dictionaries, manuals, handbooks, etc...(Refer to Guide for Selecting the Right Type of Reference Source shown above.)

SubHeading_2.jpg

Or, limit your subject search to your field of interest such as:

  • astronomy dictionaries
  • astrophysics bibliography
  • chemistry abstracts

Or try a keyword search such as "shakespeare AND bibliography".

Other options include:

  • Browse the reference section. The Reference Collection at Rasmuson Library is near the Reference Desk on Level 4. The collection is arranged by Library of Congress (LC) system, starting with general encyclopedias, which can be found on the low shelves, directly behind the Ready Reference Collection. The print indexes fill several shelves on the south end.

  • Ask a Reference Librarian. Ask in-person at the Reference Desk or send your question via email to Ask a Librarian. A librarian will respond to your question via e-mail.

  • Refer to guides to reference materials, such as Guide to Reference Books. Balay, Robert (ed.). Chicago: American Library Association, 1996. ( Ready Reference Z 1035.1 G89 1996)

  • Search the Internet. Many university web sites and Internet "virtual libraries" provide access to web reference resources. These subject directories provide access to reliable sources that have already been evaluated according to the criteria of the authors of the site. Or locate reference sources on the Web using a search engine.

    There are good and bad sources available via the Internet. Always evaluate your sources carefully.

Web Resources for Reference Tools

The number of Internet reference tools increases every year. If you are looking for reliable online versions of your favorite print research tools, some good places to start are university sponsored reference sites, such as, Internet subject directories or virtual libraries.

Virtual Libraries, web sites created by librarians that index quality web links, can also help you find quality Internet reference tools. Many of these sites have specific "general reference" sections. Try some of the virtual libraries listed here:

  • Reference Desk - Librarian's Index to the Internet. Includes links to other information sources including almanacs, calendars, dictionaries, encyclopedias, holidays, names, phone books, and statistics.
  • General Reference - WWW Virtual Library. One of the first virtual library sites, started by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of html and the web itself.
  • Reference and Periodicals - Awesome Library. This virtual library provides separate indexes for teachers, kids, teens, parents, librarians and "community."
  • Reference Resources - Internet Public library. Maintained by the University of Michigan. Reference works are broken into over twenty sub categories from almanacs to trivia.
  • Electronic Resources: For The Reference Desk - A selective list of reference sites from the Library of Congress.
  • See this linked Academic Info Digital Library site for a list of subject specific virtual libraries.

Other good online reference tools can be found on the WWW. The selected sites below represent the variety of online resources.

  • Bartleby.com This site features full text of several reference standards, including Columbia Encyclopedia, American Heritage Dictionary, Strunk & White's Elements of Style, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Gray's Anatomy, Roget's Thesaurus, the World Factbook, and more.
  • The Riley Guide. Career information, including preparing a resume, job listings, and links to professional organizations
  • NIH Health Information. Created by the National Institutes of Health. Health Information provides links to reliable web sources on a wide range of health issues.
  • Encyclopedia Smithsonian. Features answers to frequently asked questions about the Smithsonian and links to Smithsonian resources on subjects from Art to Zoology.
  • E-Conflict World Encyclopedia. Country information from around the world. A resource for business, tourists, students and teachers.
  • Currency Conversion. A conversion tool sponsored by Yahoo.
  • Essentials of Music. A W.W. Norton. site. Includes overviews of historical periods of classical music, biographies of composers, and a dictionary of music terms.
  • Mammals Species of the World (MSW). Sponsored by the Smithsonian national Museum of Natural History, this site contains the names of the 4,629 currently recognized species of mammals, in a taxonomic hierarchy that includes Order, Family, Subfamily, and Genus
  • Nobel Foundation. The official site for the Nobel Prize Foundation. Includes information on all recipients, arranged by prize category.
  • Online Literary Criticism Collection. The Internet Public Library Online Literary Criticism Collection contains 4689 critical and biographical web sites about authors and their works that can be browsed by author, by title, or by nationality and literary period.
  • ZIP Code Look-Up and Address Information. A. U.S. Postal Service site.

Works Cited:

Bolner, Myrtle S. and Gayle A. Poirier. The Research Process: Books and Beyond, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA:Kendall/ Hunt Publishing Company, 2001.

Collins, Donald, Diane Catlett, and Bobbie Collins. Libraries and Research: A Practical Approach, 3rd ed. Dubuque. IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1994.

This page was last modified on November 10, 2014