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How to Use Reference Sources

What Are Reference Sources?

Have you ever needed or wanted to know.....

  • the population of some city or country?
  • the address of some person or organization?
  • the birth and/or death dates of a well known person?
  • the definition or a term or phrase in an unfamiliar field?

The answers to questions like these can be found in reference sources such as almanacs, directories, biographical dictionaries, specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks and yearbooks. These types of sources are located in the South West wing of the first floor of the University Library, behind the Reference Desk.

How Do I Know What Kind of Reference Source I Need?

Decide What Category or Type of Information You Need.
Try to express your information need in one question.

  • If you found yourself asking "how many?" or "how much?", your question is of the statistical type.
  • If you used the words "mean" or "define", you have a definition question requiring a general or specialized dictionary.
  • The words "overview" or "background" call for a general source.
  • Questions such as "where?" "how far?" "what country?" may be geographical in nature.

The chart below will help you identify the appropriate category of information for the question you have.

Decide What Type of Reference Book or Electronic Source Supplies that Category of Information .
As you will see from the chart below, each type of information need is best served by a particular type of reference source.

  • Statistical information is most often found in almanacs or statistical abstracts.
  • Definitions in general or specialized dictionaries.
  • Background information or an overview in general or specialized encyclopedias.
  • geographical information in an atlas or gazetteer.

The chart identifies some of the major types of reference books and specifically names a few in each category. Match your type of information need to the chart. Ask the reference librarians for suggestions of other titles you might consult.

How Do I Locate the Type of Reference Source I Need?

In the online catalog, form subdivisions are used to identify various types of reference sources in a particular subject field. For example, a specialized dictionary in education would be listed under "Education--Dictionaries," and a statistical source on the oil industry would be listed under "Petroleum--Statistics." To locate the type of reference source you need:

FIRST:

Identify an appropriate subject heading in the Library of Congress Subject Headings volumes near the online catalog. Remember that reference sources are often listed under fairly broad headings representing a discipline rather than a specific subject, e.g., Mathematics rather than Algebra.

SECOND:

Consult the online catalog under that subject heading with the form subdivision for the type of reference source you need. The form subdivisions appropriate to particular types of reference sources are identified in the chart below.

IF YOU NEED: YOU NEED TO USE: FORM SUBDIVISION IS: EXAMPLE:
  • How many people are killed in automobile accidents each year?
  • The number of homicides committed each year using handguns.
  • Statistical Yearbook
  • Almanac
  • --Statistics

  • --homicides--Statistics
  • Statistical Abstracts of the United States
  • World Almanac
  • A list of sources(books, articles, etc.)
    on child abuse, acid rain, terrorism, etc.
  • Bibliography
  • --Bibliography
  • Terrorism--Bibliography
  • Child Abuse and Neglect: An Annotated bibliography
  • Background or biographical information on jazz
    and jazz musicians, minicomputers, famous actors, writers,
    sports personalities, etc.
  • Encyclopedia
  • General
  • Biographical source
  • --Dictionaries
  • --Encyclopedias
  • --Biography
  • Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz
  • Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology
  • Current Biography
  • Names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.
    for organizations, agencies or services
  • Directory
  • General
  • Specialized Directory
  • --Directories
  • Economics--Directories
  • Ecology--Dictionaries
    Encyclopedia of Associations
  • Directory of American Scholars
  • Definition of terms in a particular field
  • Dictionary
  • General
  • Specialized
  • --Dictionaries
  • Dictionaries--economics
  • Dictionary of Business and Economics
  • Black's Law Dictionary
  • A summary of the current status of year's work in an area
Yearbook
  • --Yearbooks
  • Political Science--Yearbook
  • The Statesman's Yearbook


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