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Reference Sources in Libraries

Here are some resources typically used by reference librarians and often found in library reference rooms. If you don't find something in your library—ask. Sometimes these are kept behind the reference desk if the reference librarians tend to consult them frequently. Note that many of these resources are available as both books and CD-ROMs. Which version your library has will depend on budget, technology and convenience decisions by the library. This listing is a very small sample of many thousands of reference books.

Note: the links below take you further down on this page.

Almanacs, yearbooks and handbooks
Biographical sources
Indexes and abstracts
Other reference tools

Almanacs, yearbooks and handbooks

Almanacs, yearbooks and handbooks are often single volumes which summarize large amounts of facts about things like people and organizations, current and historical events, countries, statistics, and popular culture items like sports, entertainment, zip codes. They can frequently provide quick answers to factual questions, but aren't useful for extensive research. Yearbooks are issued by encyclopedia companies and provide a quick update to events occurring during that year. Handbooks usually are focused on a particular subject, while almanacs are broader in scope.

Britannica Book of the Year.
Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1938- . Annual.
Issued every year, this update to Encyclopaedia Britannica has an overview of the year's important events. Your library may subscribe to E.B. online so that you can get the entire encyclopedia and its current events coverage on the Web from the library's computers.
Facts on File: World News Digest with Index.
New York: Facts on File, 1940- . Weekly.
Current events are indexed by person's name, place names and subjects. Because it's issued weekly, you can often find very up-to-date information, whereas yearbooks and almanacs are only issued annually at most. May also be online on NEXUS or on CD-ROM in your library.
Information Please Almanac: Atlas and Yearbook.
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1947- . Annual.
Facts, tables of statistics, information about popular culture and events, with detailed table of contents and index.
McGraw-Hill Yearbook of Science and Technology.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962- . Annual.
Subject-based yearbook of current events in science and technology.
The Oxford Companion to American Literature.
James D. Hart. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. 896 p.
This handbook serves as a comprehensive guide to American literature, including historical aspects, writers' biographies, awards, societies and trends.
The Statesman's Year Book.
Edited by John Paxton. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1864- . Annual.
A section on international organizations, then a listing for individual countries containing statistical information and facts about political and economic aspects of the country (like welfare and education systems, financial institutions, diplomatic missions and so on).
The World Almanac and Book of Facts.
New York: Funk & Wagnalls, World Almanac, 1868-1976, 1886- . Annual.
Similar to Information Please Almanac but presented in a more formal style - facts, tables of statistics, information about popular culture and events, with detailed table of contents and index. May also be on CD-ROM in your library.

Biographical sources

Reference sources with biographical information may provide a brief summary of data about a person, fairly detailed information about a person, or references (citations) to other short or full-length biographies written about the person. Brief summaries are usually found in biographical dictionaries, while other biographical sources and some encyclopedias may have more detailed information. Some cover living people and some dead people, a few cover both.

Biography and Genealogy Master Index.
2d ed. Detroit: Gale, 1980- . Annual. [Also on CD-ROM]
There are no actual biographies here but citations telling where to find biographies, whether short summaries or full-length books.
McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography.
12 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.
Specifically designed to meet the needs of high school and college students by choosing to cover people who are frequently featured in the curriculum. Features people who are living as well as dead, and the biographical information is quite detailed. Study guides in the last volume identify important people who were associated with particular historical events or issues.
Webster's New Biographical Dictionary.
Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1988. 1130 p.
Summarized biographies of important people of the past, source for quick facts.
Who's Who.
London: Adam and Charles Black, 1894- . Annual.
International version with brief biographical information for living people.
Who's Who in America.
Chicago: Marquis Who's Who, 1899/1900- . Annual.
One of many "Who's Who" and "Who Was Who" sources offered by several different publishing houses. Some focus on ethnic groups, some on historical figures, some on groups such as artists or politicians. Check your library to see which sources are available.


Standard dictionaries give an alphabetical list of words and their definitions, but there are several useful variations also classified as dictionaries. Thesauri contain synonyms and antonyms (opposites) but usually don't define the words. Dialect and slang dictionaries present words and definitions not necessarily found in standard dictionaries. There are also dictionaries of abbreviations and acronyms and dictionaries of quotations. We haven't listed specific examples here, because you'll probably just want to browse your library's collection. These general dictionaries are usually shelved near each other in the reference room. There are also quite a few dictionaries available in CD-ROM and on the Web.


Encyclopedias traditionally provide comprehensive coverage of an entire area of knowledge. There are general encyclopedias and subject encyclopedias, and they differ as to the level of detail provided and the complexity of the writing. Encyclopedias are good for fact-finding, getting general background information about a subject or starting a research project. The many CD-ROM encyclopedias contain much of the same information as the print volumes, as well as being searchable and giving you the ability to print out text and pictures. The CD-ROM versions and the many subject-based encyclopedias are not separately listed here—check with your library's reference department to see what they have available.

Academic American Encyclopedia.
21 vols. Danbury, Conn.: Grolier, 1998.
Presents fairly brief articles on specific topics, with a clear, concise writing style. More factual information than broad overviews of large subject areas.
Collier's Encyclopedia.
24 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1997.
One of the "big three" adult encyclopedias typically found in public and academic libraries. Scholarly and comprehensive coverage.
Encyclopedia Americana.
International ed. 30 vols. Danbury, Conn.: Grolier, 2002.
Another of the "big three" mixes shorter articles with long articles broad in scope. In length and scholarship, compares to Britannica.
New Encyclopaedia Britannica.
15th ed. 32 vols. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002.
Considered by many to be the premier English-language general encyclopedia. The writing is scholarly and therefore sometimes difficult to understand in a subject area with which you're unfamiliar. Articles in the Micropaedia are short and fact-filled, while the Macropaedia has long articles surveying broad aspects of a topic. Very extensive list of bibliographic references at the end of each article so you can find additional information.
World Book Encyclopedia.
22 vols. Chicago: World Book, 2002.
Aimed at students, this is very widely used in both public and school libraries. Coverage is provided for all subjects in the U.S. school curriculum, and articles have lots of cross-references to other articles within the encyclopedia and to outside sources. Study guides help to organize research on various topics. This is an excellent place to start when you're totally unfamiliar with a subject area.

Indexes and abstracts

Indexes and abstracts supplement the library catalog as described by Bopp and Smith (1995):

Users may come into a library, consult the main catalog, and falsely assume they have searched the entire contents of the library. The catalog may confirm the holdings of a periodical [magazine or journal] but not its contents; a poetry collection but not individual poems; the title of an author's collected works but not the individual work; newspapers but not individual news stories. Indexes and abstracts are created and become extremely useful tools to more fully reveal detailed resources not covered in the more general catalog.

For most research papers at the college level, you'll want to look for scholarly journal articles about your chosen topic. Indexes are the tools you'll use for this purpose, and if you're lucky, your library will have some indexes either loaded in the online library catalog or available on CD-ROM. Searching indexes is different than searching the library catalog, however, because indexes don't use the same subject classifications as the library catalog. Some indexes provide books of "descriptors" to help you search for key words and key concepts by which the items have been indexed.

Be aware that indexes will contain items not held at your library, because they are prepared by commercial companies that index a particular group of periodicals or works regardless of where they may be held. A periodical index is most useful if it contains abstracts—brief summaries of the articles. Abstracts make it easier to tell if the article is relevant to the subject of your research.

Other reference tools

Statistics and Government documents

Government documents are available free of copyright and certain publishers compile and index them for use by libraries and other researchers. The volume of documents produced every day by the U.S. government is almost beyond imagining, and the system of numbering documents is unique and unlike the rest of the library's classification system. In addition to laws, regulations and agency documents, the government produces a lot of statistics for public release.

Many academic and public libraries have a lot of government documents and statistics and the various indexing tools you need to be able to locate and retrieve them. A lot of these are available on CD-ROM or in online databases within the library. Quite of bit of this information is being made available on the Web as well. Finding both government documents and statistical information can be a real challenge. A trip to the reference desk is probably the quickest way to zero in on what you need.

Geographic information

Atlases and maps are the main sources of geographical information in libraries, though many encyclopedias and dictionaries have maps which may be sufficient for your purpose. There are different kinds of specialized atlases much as there are different kinds of dictionaries. Some atlases contain statistics such as population, economic factors, weather, and other facts. There are historical or thematic atlases which show the world at certain dates or during certain events, such as wars.


Bibliographies are lists of works—books or shorter works—which help identify sources where information can be found. You might want to find additional works by a certain author or works on a certain subject. There are hundreds of different kinds of bibliographies compiled for different purposes, and your reference librarian can let you know which ones might be useful in the topic area of your research. Remember that a bibliography will tell you a work exists, but it may not be held by your library. If you find an interesting item in a bibliography, consult your library's catalog to see if it's available in the collection.

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A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz