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Library Research Basics: 5. Reference Materials

This guide will help you understand the basic process of library research for a typical college paper.


...Tools and sources are different

Reference tools provide background information about a topic or point you to sources on a topic. Sources, on the other hand, are the books and articles that provide you with the kind of in-depth information and analysis that you will need to write your paper.

Targeted background reading


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As as saw in Step #4 of the research process, reference sources are key to a successful research strategy. They can provide a good, working knowledge of key issues and sub-topics and provide ideas for other sources to explore. To figure out how to use various types of reference sources, feel free to Ask a Librarian.

Reference sources generally fall into three categories:

Fact tools

This is the most common type of reference source. Fact tools contain bits of useful data, such as descriptions, definitions, statistics, lists, quotes or rules. They include dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, atlases, almanacs, quotation books and style manuals.

Finding tools

Finding tools point you to books and articles on your topic and can exist in either print or electronic form. Typically you search within a finding source by topic. Some examples include catalogs, databases, indexes and bibliographies.

Hybrid tools

Just like the name suggests, hybrid tools combine both fact and finding functions. They contain information about a topic, and a list of recommended resources. Many specialized reference encyclopedias--and even Wikipedia--are considered hybrids.

Additional resources

Suggested reference materials

Here are some popular general reference sources that can be found in the library:

American Decades - Includes information on American popular culture in the 20th century.

Historic Documents - Contains information about and excerpts from primary sources from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Style Guides (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) - Academic disciplines typically use a citation style that provides rules for formatting and citing sources in a paper. The library has copies of all major guides.

Reader's Guide to periodical literature - This guide tells you what articles have recently been published on a topic. The library has this source in both print and database form.