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Information Literacy Research Skill Building: Online Reference Tools

This guide contains information literacy instructional materials based on the ACRL Information Literacy Standards.

What are academic "reference" tools?

This page highlights a very special type of information resource that librarians call “reference tools,” or “reference resources.”  You may have used a generalized dictionary or encyclopedia before, but academic dictionaries and more specialized encyclopedias can provide more in-depth background information on your topic.  This can be invaluable in helping you focus your search and getting your bearings on how to approach your topic in an academic way.

Types of Reference Information

Definitions of Key Reference Resource Types


Almanacs contain: 

  • Information regarding individual people, nations, specific events, and other types of information.
  • It contains very basic information about its entries, and  are usually published frequently.

Bibliographies contain: 

  • Lists of resources on a particular topic.
  • Use a bibliography to locate relevant works about a particular topic, subject, or author. They can also be used as a verification tool for checking citation information.

Biographical Sources provide:

  • Information about individuals who have made a significant contribution to warrant their inclusion in the source.
  • They may contain very brief information about an entry, or may offer more detailed and complete information about the history of someone's life.

General Dictionaries (non-academic) contain: information about words, either generally, such as in Webster's New World College Dictionary, or in a more specific sense, such as A Dictionary of 1,000 Best Films.

Subject dictionaries explain words in terms of:

  • Professions, occupations or areas of academic interest.
  • Some examples of different dictionaries are historical dictionaries, etymological dictionaries foreign language dictionaries, subject works, and "other" types that do not fall into any of these categories, such as slang dictionaries.

Directories help you find:

  • Information about people or organizations arranged in some type of order that facilitates finding their location in the directory.
  • Entries include information such as addresses, and affiliations for people, and other information for organizations, such as finances, officers, and purposes of the organizations. Directories are often used to find specific information about people or organizations, information about a company's services or products, individuals in particular organizations responsible for different tasks, and biographical information or the history of an organization.

Academic or "specialized" Encyclopedias contain

  • Very specialized information specific to a subject.
  • Information from specialized encyclopedias can help ground you in the facts, and give you a better perspective of more controversial information you may find later in academic journals. You can find academic encyclopedias on almost any topic!

Examples: The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, Encyclopedia of American Urban History.

Handbooks concentrate on

  • A specific subject area and on established information as opposed to the latest, most current developments in the field. 
  • Handbooks cover a limited area of knowledge, and can be used by people interested in gaining specific in-depth knowledge about a specific topic.

Manuals, much like a handbooks, deal with:

  • Very specific subject matter and is narrow in scope.
  • Material covered within the manual is often quite detailed and difficult to understand unless the reader possesses some type of background knowledge of the subject.

Yearbooks contain information pertaining to a specific year. While a yearbook does not contain information from previous years, it does contain quite a bit of information dealing with that one particular year, often separated by characteristics such as subject area or geographic boundary. While many yearbooks are general in scope, there are also many that deal with particular topics and include statistical information.

*** The definitions above are based on information from William A. Katz' 7th edition of Introduction to Reference Work, published by McGraw Hill (New York), in 1997.

Academic Encyclopedias / Dictionaries

 Check the basic facts of your topic:  

reference books

Lists of Print Reference Sources

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