Reference Services and Sources

Reference Services:-The function of libraries is three-fold. Libraries acquire information, organize that information in a way it can be retrieved, and disseminate the information the library has acquired. Reference services fulfills this last function. Reference services may vary from library to library, but most libraries have an information or Reference Desk where assistance from a librarian is available. Almost all libraries provide reference services via the telephone and many libraries offer email, text, or chat services with a reference librarian.There are three main types of reference assistance:

  • Assistance or instruction with using the library, including locating materials, using the catalog, using computers to access information, and using basic reference sources.
  • Assistance identifying library materials needed to answer a question.
  • Providing brief, factual answers to questions, such as addresses, statistics, phone numbers, etc. that can be quickly located.

Reference sources are designed to be consulted rather than read through. Their design is generally dependent on the type of information and treatment provided. Reference materials can be arranged alphabetically, topically, or chronologically. Many will contain cross listed information and more than one index. If it is not obvious how a reference source is organized, take a moment to look through the explanatory or how-to-use information, which is usually presented at the beginning of the book, or in HELP screens for online products.

There are thousands of reference sources available that cover practically every subject. Although the term reference “book” is frequently used, reference sources can be books, serials, on-line databases or the Internet. A large part of using reference sources well is choosing the right one.

Despite the wide variety available, reference sources can be categorized into a handful of groups. Think about the kind of information you need and how you will use it. If you are unsure which reference tool is best suited to your information need, a reference librarian will be able to assist you.

For information about… Choose…
Words Dictionaries
General information/Overview of topic Encyclopedias
Names & addresses of people, organizations, institutions, companies Directories
Profiles of people Biographical Dictionaries
Places/Maps Gazetteers or Atlases
Facts and Statistics Almanacs
Formula, Tables, How-To-Do-It Handbooks and Manuals
A person’s work Reviews or Criticisms
Dates, outlines, historical timelines Historical tables, Chronologies, Historical yearbooks
Periodical Articles Indexes or Abstracts
Books and other sources Bibliographies or Guides to Literature…

Types of Reference Tools

Two major categories of reference materials are general and subject. General sources include all subjects and present overviews of topics. Reference materials focused on specific subjects can provide more in-depth coverage.

There are reference sources that provide information on specific subjects as well as general sources that provide information on many subjects. In general, reference sources are either general or subject specific. If you need an overview of a subject, perhaps a general information source will suit your needs. If you need specialized information, a subject specific tool may be better suited.

The following reference sources and others are available in the main Reference Collection on Level 4 of Rasmuson Library, and/or via the Internet.

Dictionaries

Dictionaries provide information about words.

  • General dictionaries are the most familiar to us. You may even own one. This group includes Webster’s International Dictionary, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. These sources generally provide definitions, pronunciations, syllabication, and usage.
  • Historical dictionaries provide the history of a word from its introduction into the language to the present. The Oxford English Dictionary is an excellent example of this type of dictionary.
  • Etymological dictionaries are dictionaries which emphasize the anaylsis of components of words and their cognates in other languages. These dictionaries emphasize the linguistic and grammatical history of the word usage. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology is an example of an etymological dictionary.
  • Period or scholarly specialized dictionaries focus on a particular place or time period. For example, try the Dictionary of Alaskan English if you would like to know when the word “cheechako” was first used.
  • Foreign language dictionaries are fairly self-explanatory. We’ve all looked up words in a French or Spanish or other Western European language. Don’t forget other wonderful dictionaries, such as the Yup’ik Eskimo Dictionary or the Inupiat Eskimo dictionary.
  • Subject dictionaries focus on word definitions in a subject area, such as finance, law, botany, electronics, physics, etc.
  • Other dictionaries include dictionaries of slang, abrreviations, synonyms, antonyms, abbreviations, acronyms, reversals, rhyming, idioms, phrases, and guides to correct usage. Dictionary of Acronyms and Abbreviations, The Macmillan Dictionary of Historical Slang, Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, The American Language, Strunk’s Elements of Style.
  • Dictionaries Wikipedia

Dictionaries, like other reference sources, may belong to more than one category. For example, an English-Russian engineering dictionary is both a foreign language and a subject dictionary.

Dictionaries may be abridged or unabridged. Abridged dictionaries are smaller and contained the most commonly used words. Unabridged dictionaries try to include all words in current usage. Like other reference sources, dictionaries may become outdated as language evolves. Care should be taken to carefully identify the publication date and focus of the dictionary selected. General dictionaries begin with LC call numbers starting with AG. Specialized dictionaries will have subject specific call numbers.

Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias provide general background information; they are a good place to start researching a topic that you know little about. Large subject areas or disciplines are covered in broad articles that explain basic concepts. These overview articles often contain references to more specific aspects of the larger topic and may include a bibliography that leads you to more in-depth sources. Encyclopedias may be general or subject specific.

  • General encyclopedias usually arrange articles alphabetically by topic. Look for an accompanying index which may list cross-references to other articles. Included in this category are Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Cambridge Encyclopedia , Encyclopedia Americana, and the Columbia Encyclopedia. General encyclopedia LC call numbers begin with AE.
  • Subject encyclopedias are available for almost every academic discipline. They provide more in-depth and technical information than general encyclopedias. Subject encyclopedias generally assume some prior knowledge of the subject. There is no general rule for how these tools are arranged. Look for an index. A few examples of subject encyclopedias include the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Encyclopedia of World Art, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Subject encyclopedias will have subject specific call numbers.
  • Encyclopedias Wikipedia

Directories

Directories provide names, addresses, affiliations, etc. of people, organizations, or institutions. They can be used to verify addresses, name spellings, and provide contact information. As in other reference sources, directories may be general or focused on a particular subject.

Biographical Dictionaries

Biographical dictionaries contain short articles about people’s lives. Biography resources have call numbers that begin with CT.

  • General biographical dictionaries include Current Biography, Dictionary of American Biography, Who’s Who, Encyclopedia of World Biography, etc.
  • Subject biographical dictionaries may focus on a subject area or group. These sources include Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Contemporary Authors, Biographical Dictionary of Psychology , New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Women of Science, etc.
  • Biographical dictionaries Wikipedia

Gazetteers or Atlases

Geographic information is located in gazetteers, atlases and maps. Geography resources have call numbers that begin with G.

  • Atlasescontain collections of maps. They provide information on geographical/political changes. There are world, national, and thematic atlases and these may be current or historical.
    • World atlases include National Geographic Atlas of the World.
    • National atlases: National Atlas of the United States, Atlas of the American Revolution.
    • Thematic atlases focus on a specific subject area, such as astronomy or agriculture. Examples include, The Oxford Economic Atlas of the World and the Environmental Atlas of Alaska.
    • Atlases Wikipedia
  • Gazetteersare sometimes referred to as geographical dictionaries and provide descriptions of places, but no maps.
    • General gazetteers include Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary, The Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World, Gazetteer of Undersea Features, etc.
    • Regional gazetteers, such as Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, by D. Orth, focus on a specific geographical region and are good places to look if you want to know the location of a town, its population, or where its name came from.

Sometimes atlases and gazetteers are combined, as in the Alaska Atlas and Gazetteer, by DeLorme Mapping, which publishes similar products for the other states.

Almanacs

Almanacs contain statistics and facts about countries, events, personalities, or subjects. Almanac resources have call numbers that begin with AY.

  • General almanacs include the Statistical Abstract of the United States, The New York Public Library Desk Reference, World Almanac (an American focus), Information Please Almanac (print ed. called Time Almanac), Whitaker’s Almanak (United Kingdom focus).
  • Subject almanacs include The Weather Almanac, The Almanac of Renewable Energy, Political Reference Almanac, Alaska Almanac, and more.
  • Almanacs Wikipedia

Handbooks/Manuals

Handbooks and manuals are subject area tools. Handbooks provide facts, terms, concepts, movements, etc. of a topic. Manuals provide detailed instructions on a particular subject, such as how-to-do something or how something works.

  • Handbooks: Handbook of North American Indians, Guide to Alaska Trees, Words and Ideas: A Handbook for College Writing, Handbook of Mathematical Formulas, MLA Handbook For Writers of Research Papers.
  • Manuals: Manual of Photography, Manual for Environmental Impact Evaluation, Alaska Craftsman Home Building Manual, United States Government Manual.
  • Handbooks and manuals Wikipedia

Review & Criticism Sources

These tools provide reviews or critiques of a person’s work.

  • General: Book Review Digest (OCLC FirstSearch, hereafter called FirstSearch), MLA (FirstSearch), New York Times Book Review, Contemporary Literary Criticism.
  • Subject: Children’s Literature Review, Popular Music Record Reviews.

Historical Tables, Chronologies, Historical Yearbooks

Historical tables and chronologies present historical facts in different formats. Historical tables provide facts chronologically in columns with each column representing another geographical area or other major area, such as history, economics, religions. etc. Chronologies use narrative form to present facts. Historical tables and chronologies may span long or very short time periods. Historical yearbooks provide facts and statistics for a single year and may be published annually.

  • Historical Tables: The Timetables of History, Historical Tables, 58 BC-AD 1985.
  • Chronologies: Chronology of World History, The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies, Chronology of the Expanding World, 1492-1762, A Chronology of the People’s Republic of China from October 1, 1949, Annals of European Civilization, 1501-1900.
  • Historical Yearbooks: The Statesman’s Year-Book.

Indexes & Abstracts

Indexes and abstracts lead to additional sources of periodical articles. Indexes only provide author, title, and subject information. Abstracts tend to be more descriptive. Some online index databases also include the full-text of the article.

  • General: Reader’s Guide to Periodic Index (FirstSearch), Book Review Index, Periodicals Abstracts (FirstSearch).
  • Subject: Art Abstracts (FirstSearch), New York Times Index (ABI Inform), Biography Index (FirstSearch), Chemical Abstracts.

Bibliographies

Bibliographies lead to other information sources. They are lists of books and other materials that provide author, title, and publication information. Annotated bibliographies also include a brief description or summary of the item. Bibliographies are available on almost every topic and may focus on specific persons, groups, subjects, or time periods. Many bibliographies are selective and do not attempt to include all publications. Bibliographies are sometimes referred to as “Guides to the Literature …”

Examples: American Fiction, 1774-1850, Bibliography of Education, Utilization of Wood Residues: An Annotated Bibliography, A Bibliography of Sir Walter Scott, MLA Bibliography (FirstSearch), Current Bibliographies in Medicine (NLM), Alutiiq Ethnographic Bibliography (ANKN).

Ready Reference

The Ready Reference Collection contains reference sources that are used most frequently. The Ready Reference shelves are located adjacent to the Reference Desk. The collection includes reference tools such as The Encyclopedia of Associations, The Encyclopedia of Associations, The Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Style guides (MLA, APA, Chicago), a thesaurus, The Physician’s Desk Reference, Alaska phone directories, Black’s Law Dictionary, World Almanac, The Merck Manual of Medical Information, Zip Code Directories, etc

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