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ENGL U101 - Composition I - Professor Wilson Colyard: Reference Collection

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Ask-A-Librarian

What are "Reference Books" and why should I use them...

What is a reference book?

A reference book is a source that provides facts &/or finite pieces of information; this can be general (Encyclopedia Britannica) or more subject focused (Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball). They are sources designed not to be read cover to cover but to be used to get key facts about a topic (think dictionary or almanac). These materials don’t circulate (they have to be used in the Library) so that everyone can use the material. Reference books are a great place to start your research, find general history/background information as well as important people, dates &/or terms related to your topic.

Reference books are usually organized alphabetically (think encyclopedia or dictionary) but using the Index (the back section of a book or group of books that alphabetically lists the headings including people, places and subjects with corresponding page numbers) can be a quick way to find the information you need.

In our library reference books are located in the first eleven moving shelves and are marked with “reference collection” marked on a red sign on the end of the shelves. They are marked USC Upstate Reference in the catalog and have REF on the top of the spine label.

Reference books give you:

  • A quick introduction to your subject by covering a lot of points briefly
  • In-depth background on some of the major people &/or key elements of your topic
  • Vocabulary to use for searches in other resources 
  • Ideas for additional resources (check the reference list)

Reference Source Types

  • Almanac - usually a single volume compilation of facts and statistics on a topic.
  • Atlas - book of maps and geographical information.
    • Historical Atlas - maps about changes and developments in a place over time
    • Subject Atlas - contains maps relating to a specific topic
  • Bibliography - list of sources (books, articles, and other information sources) about a specific subject or author
  • Chronology - presents information organized by dates
  • Concordance - gives an alphabetical list of the principal keywords or phrases contained in a book with citations of the passages
  • Dictionary - A Collection of words listed alphabetically with usage information, pronunciation and other information.  There are several types of dictionaries:
    • Abridged dictionary - defines selected words and terms, confirms spelling, definition and pronunciation, gives how words are used, helps to locate synonyms and antonyms
    • Bilingual dictionary - define words and terms used in foreign language(s)
    • Biographical dictionary - short summary of the lives of people
    • Etymological dictionary - gives the history of words and how their meanings change
    • Subject dictionary - focuses on the vocabulary of a subject or discipline
    • Unabridged dictionary - defines every word and term, confirms spelling, definition and pronunciation, gives how words are used, helps to locate synonyms and antonyms
  • Digest - compilation: something that is compiled: a short account
  • Directory - gives contact information such as names, addresses, telephone numbers
  • Encyclopedia - covers knowledge or branches of knowledge in a comprehensive, but summary fashion; useful for providing facts and giving a broad survey of a topic
  • Gazetteer - geographical index or dictionary that contains no maps
  • Guidebook - provides detailed descriptions of places that is intended primarily for the guidance of strangers or visitors, giving a description of the roads, places, or objects of interest to be found there, geographical facts and possibly maps
  • Handbook - gives a brief survey of a topic
  • Index - lists citations to periodical articles, books, and proceedings, and tells where they can be found
  • Manual - tells how to do something, such as how something operates or the inner workings of an organization
  • Subject Encyclopedia - includes articles/information only on topics in a specific subject area
  • Yearbook - covers the trends and events of a specific year; may be general in coverage, limited to one subject, or restricted to one geographical area

The above definitions were compiled September 2007 from library websites and one book.
http://library.uncfsu.eduhttp://lib.nmsu.edu & Bolner, Myrtle & Gayle Poirier. The Research Process Books and Beyond. page 125 Kendall Hunt Pub, 1997.
K. Swetland Sept 2007