Basic reference sources

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 2 June 2017


See also Authority | Evaluating basic reference sources | Evaluating health information | Print ordering | Top Information Sources in Biomedical Reference Services

  • What is meant by the word "basic?" In understanding its use within the context of reference sources, think of it along these lines:
  • The essence of the reference source; a central, defining characteristic of its type; a template for all other reference tools
  • Starting point, foundation or place where you can begin and build knowledge; you may not find all your answers here ~ but it’s a place to start
  • Simple or simplified is a fundamental, direct, easy to use source of information; it may be important or critical in providing reference services
  • Librarians are diagnosticians and detectives. They take information provided to them by patrons and assess it, determining through a reference interview, what the true nature of your information need is (even if you are unsure); librarians formulate strategies to satisfy your information needs, pursuing possible answers through application of reliable information sources
  • Basic reference sources are the first resources to which librarians turn; they are typically general in scope, provide a certain type of information in a particular format rather than being subject-focussed. One chooses a basic source by thinking about how the requested information is likely to appear: What type of resource might present information of this kind in this way?
  • For librarians and patrons, the simplest, quickest, and most direct route to an answer is usually preferable. Basic reference sources are designed to provide that directness. In earlier days, basic reference sources were always "low-tech". Now, websites replace traditional reference sources as the easiest, most direct method of answering some queries, though in many cases print sources are still superior. The choice of web resources available to librarians changes, almost moment to moment, so one should always be investigating new sites as reference tools.
  • Rather than presenting you with ten basic reference sources, I like to divide resources into ten "genres" or formats. These are based not so much on the information presented, but how it is presented. As you explore each type, notice how in each genre the format is the guiding factor in terms of how it is categorized. There is considerable overlap, and reference sources can be included in more than one category or grouped differently. The important thing with basic reference sources is that searching by format is often the way the information is presented - and may be a more direct route to an answer.
  • When examining new reference sources, read their introductory material and FAQs. Usually they describe the source’s function and explain how it can be used effectively. Sometimes reading these sections reveals possible uses of which you may not be unaware. Explore each section, and the index. Finally, think of a search question and try to use the source to answer it.

In 2014, SAGE published a The State of Reference Collections white paper that analyzes the state of reference resources. The white paper presents information on how reference resources are being collected and used in today’s academic, public, and special libraries (including legal, governmental, hospital, and corporate libraries) around the world.


What is an almanac? What is its purpose?

  • To provide factual information; calendars; leads and information about people; statistics; folklore; astronomical, astrological, and meteorological charts, tables, unusual phenomena
  • Most almanacs have two indexes: a short one for quick searching and an exhaustive one by general, rather than specific, subject headings
  • Almanacs have always been the best place to look if the reference question is when? Or how many?
  • Most almanacs will only give information for the current year or current and past years
  • The World Almanac is the best source for data covering many years

Representative Print Sources

Representative Internet Sources

This source is most like a general almanac with an index similar to the print version.

A sampling of more specialized almanac sites:


What is an atlas?

  • A collection of maps or charts usually bound together. But also can include pictures, tabular data, facts and indexes of place names and statistics.
  • Specialized atlases include those for climate, economy, geology, history, languages, religions, resources, boundaries, population, and transportation.
  • Answers global or regional questions.

Representative Print Sources

Representative Internet Sources

World geography information sites contain much more than just geography:

A gazetteer lists names of places; this site provides national information.

A good source for street maps as well as written directions


What is a bibligraphy?

  • Collection of book or periodical titles, generally in alphabetical order, on a particular topic.

Some bibliographies will include groupings by subject or geographical area.

Representative Print Sources

These sites are helpful when searching for information about a book, such as the title or author:

For information about books that may be out of print:

For reader's advisory lists:

For plays, quotations, song lyrics, or poems, often the best way to search is to bypass print sources and specialized websites and go straight to a large search engine such as or Type the title or line from the poem or song in quotes and hit "go." We have found many an obscure poem or song very quickly using this method.


What is a biography?

  • A biography is a survey of an individual's life covering their achievements; typically, the biographical subject is a celebrity or a prominent member of society; an historical figure, movie star

Some biographical sources cover only those people who cooperate by sending in biographical information. Others require that the individual approach the publication and submit a request for inclusion. Some, like Who's Who, indicate those entries for which the subject declined to provide information.

Representative Print Sources

Short biographical sketches on many political, cultural, historical, etc., persons

Consumer or Self-Help Reference Sources

What is a consumer source?

  • A consumer reference source provides the public or consumer with inside information on quality, safety, and pricing of products, professional services, technology, etc.
  • Offers ratings, advice, and recourse, enabling consumer to make an informed choice.

Representative Print Sources


What is a dictionary?

  • A dictionary lists words, usually in a prescribed order (generally alphabetical). General dictionaries will include pronunciations, grammatical forms, etymology, meanings, variant spellings, synonyms, and antonyms.

Dictionaries can be specialized, such as in medicine, science, law, business, etc.


Medical dictionaries

A classic medical dictionary. 1000+ illustrations, 13 appendices with anatomy, muscle groups, phobias & reference values for lab tests.


Key dictionary. Appendices: lab values, abbreviations, symbols, weights & measures.

An impressive visual source, Melloni’s contains clear definitions, common abbreviations and pronunciation guide. Helpful are “prefixes/suffixes” and “how to use” sections.

Long entries. 2000+ colour anatomical illustrations, appendices with normal lab values for adults/children, nutrition guidelines, symbols and abbreviations and (U.S.) disease statistics.

1903 classic, Stedman’s provides definitions, pronunciation, colour illustrations & anatomical plates, word and genus finders. A complement to Dorland’s, used by NLM for MeSH terms.

Illustrated. Causes, symptoms, poisoning, first aid, prognosis, Rx. Twenty-five appendices: lab values, daily dietary allowances, phobias, Models & Theories of Nursing.


What is a directory?

  • A directory is an alphabetical listing of names and addresses of persons, organizations, groups within a city, district or category

Inclusion in directories is not always automatic. Generally the front of the book states the conditions of inclusion in or exclusion from the directory. Most directories group entries according to several different classifications such as name, area, region, etc. for ease of searching.

  • Encyclopedia of Associations
  • Ulrich's International Periodical Directory
  • Chamber of Commerce Directories

People and business finder sites:

Five sections: alphabetic listing of members; members by geographical region; members by specialties; “temporary” members and those involved in medical education and finally a directory of BC hospitals.

Directory of certified Canadian physicians, specialists & family doctors. University faculties of medicine, provincial ministries of health, Canadian hospitals and Canadian healthcare associations. Languages spoken by doctors and helpful medicine “Year in Review” included.


What is an encyclopedia?

  • An encyclopedia is an up-to-date detailed source of information covering all branches of knowledge. Some encyclopedias cover specialized areas comprehensively. Written for the layperson rather than practitioner or specialist. Each article is a discreet entry written by an expert in that subject. Good source if the question is Who? What? Where? And to a lesser extent, When?
  • World Book Encyclopedia
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (Britannica Online)
  • The Book of Lists

NOTE: While there are online and CD-ROM formats for many encyclopedias few are as easy or more direct than print.

The 21st century is a major transition period for encyclopaedias. Encyclopaedias such as Britannica and the World Book have gone through several transitions from print to CD-ROMs, CD-ROMs to on-line editions and more recently as smartphone apps. Encyclopaedias are produced, distributed and used by all kinds of learners. Mobile devices provide enough space to carry an encyclopedia in one's pocket; or from anywhere "on the go". While a lot has been said about Wikipedia, contemporary encyclopaedias do not receive similar attention. Yet, they have much in common.

Modern encyclopaedias, with their roots in the enlightenment, symbolize a kind of learning and rote memorization. In fact, they have been yardsticks for what is accepted as knowledge for decades (so-and-so has an "encyclopedic knowledge" of X). They stand for a kind of truthiness and stability while aiming to change with the times. Their production, consumption, use, distribution and significance are all up for grabs but they are more easily accessible, more in demand and more often referred to than ever.

Reflect on your encounters with traditional encyclopaedias; consider how the means of production for and dissemination of new knowledge has changed because of the web and Wikipedia. What sociotechnical and cultural aspects of this new digital world interest you? Does this type of knowledge production have a future? Should we think of encyclopaedias as yardsticks of public knowledge?


What is an index?

  • An index is often used to "point to" or refer to something else. Ideas, literature, poems, plays, services, publications, people, etc. in other publications
  • Indexes are organized by author, keyword, subject, title, and first/last lines.

Librarians frequently research locations (books, etc.) listed in an index.

Statistical sources

  • Statistics is the science of collecting data and using mathematical formulas to define relationships between unrelated groups of data. Statistical sources present information in tables, graphs, charts, etc.

Representative Print Sources

Miscellaneous Websites and Sources


The best resource of any reference staff is the colleague beside them. Never hesitate to seek the advice of your co-workers. Everyone has their areas of expertise and esoteric knowledge and two heads are better than one sometimes, if for no other reason than to confirm that you've done all you can. Seek each other out and support each other in the provision of reference services and strive for excellence.


Reference librarians are aware that they can't always locate the right answer. One of the finer points of good reference service is knowing when you've searched long enough and when it's time to refer the patron. Public libraries may have large collections, and academic and special libraries will have different materials. Learn what other libraries in your area have, the nature and format of their resources and their openness to referral. If they are open to it, send your patron to the most productive location.

See also

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