Guide to Library Research
Mary Livermore Library
Unit 3: Selecting Resources


Reference Resources:

When starting a research project, most students do not have possess a lot of knowledge about their topics. They may have some general idea or even an enthusiasm for a topic - especially if it is related to a personal interest. In this case it is often best to start with reference sources. Reference sources are those that provide background (which we discussed in Module 2), biographical, factual, and historical information - and so much more. The most common reference sources that most students have had some experience with are dictionaries and encyclopedias (usually something general like World Book).


reference books


Why reference sources are useful to most students is that even though they are most often created by scholars, they are typically written in everyday language. They usually contain simple entries that may be only a few paragraphs or a even a few pages. Students can simply photocopy the pages that they require and refer to the information as needed.


Below are a few of the main types of reference sources:


Subject Dictionaries


The Library has thousands of subject-specific dictionaries. They are great for learning about key terms for any given subject. They are especially useful for helping students to understand the terminology used in scholarly books and journals.


Click here to see some of the subject-specific dictionaries that are available in the Library.

subject encyclopedia

Subject Encyclopedias


The Library has at least one related subject-specific encyclopedia for any topic that you can think of. These are great sources of biographical and factual information. Whenever you search the catalog for books by keyword, subject-specific encyclopedias will also be listed.


Click here to see some of the subject-specific encyclopedias that are available in the Library.


Guides and Handbooks


Guides and handbooks are reference sources that are usually tied to a profession or specialized research (such as the Handbook of Child Psychology or the Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders).


Click here to see some of the guides and handbooks that are available in the Library..




Atlases are a great source for maps, but also economic, historical, and social information tied to specific geographical areas. There are also sources such as the Atlas of the Human Body.

Click here to see some of the atlases that are available in the Library.


Online Reference Sources


Many of the important print reference resources in the Library are also available online through collections such as Oxford Reference Online or Sage e-Reference.


Click here to see some of the onlione reference sources that are available in the Library (and from off campus).

oxford reference


Most reference sources in the Library are organized according to the Library of Congress classification system, in which the first letter signifies the field to which the book belongs-E for history, for example, or Q for science. The print reference collection is situated on the first floor near the reference desk. Students are encouraged to work with reference librarians in order to locate appropriate reference sources. The reference holdings (both print and online) are searchable in the Library's online catalog.