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Reference Sources: What They Are and How to Use Them: Home

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What is a Reference Source?

"Reference sources" are used to locate general factual information on a particular topic.They usually are read selectively for specific pieces of information, rather than from beginning to end. Examples of reference sources include:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries
  • Almanacs
  • Indexes
  • Atlases
  • Bibliographies

We realize that the term "reference sources" used this way may be a bit confusing, since your professors might also talk about "references" as a way of describing anything that you might cite in a research paper. Always be sure to ask your professor if you aren't clear on how they're using the term.

What are reference sources good for?

Reference sources often provide an excellent starting point for a research project. They are a good place to find general background and introductory information, specialized terminology, and lists of references for further research. Think of them as a way to find your bearings in a particular subject area before digging into more detailed scholarly sources.

Is it acceptable to cite reference sources in a research paper?

You may have heard professors tell you not to use encyclopedias when writing a research paper. What they probably meant were general reference sources like the Encyclopaedia Britannica or Wikipedia. While even general sources like these can contain useful information, they are not specialized enough to use for academic work. There are, however, other highly specialized reference sources (some of them even called "encyclopedias" or "dictionaries") that might be perfectly appropriate for use in a research project. Such specialized sources are written by experts in their fields and sometimes include quite detailed scholarly treatment of their topics. These can provide an excellent starting point for your research. Always check with your professor to find out whether it's acceptable to use such specialized reference sources as citations in a research paper.

Where can reference sources be found in Hiebert Library?

We've prepared lists of our most useful reference sources, arranged by subject area. Select the appropriate subject area from the list below to see the list for that topic.

The lists are divided by online and print resources. Online reference sources can be accessed simply by clicking on them. The library's print reference section is located near the main circulation desk (just to the right of the desk as you walk through the front gate). Items in the reference section cannot be checked out. They are intended for use in the library only.