What are reference books and reference sources?

Reference books and reference sources are not meant to be read cover to cover. They are used to locate specific facts and background information. 

Examples of reference books or reference sources include dictionaries and encyclopedias; however, there are many kinds of reference works in a library collection, as this table illustrates.

Type Description


An annual publication of practical dates, facts, and statistics, current and/or historic. 

Example: The Military Balance


A bound or boxed collection of maps, usually related in subject or theme, with an index of place names usually printed at the end. 

Example: Historical Atlas of Hasidism


A publication that lists written works by a specific author or on a given topic, or that share one or more common characteristics (language, time period, place of publication, etc.).

Example: Rap/Hip Hop: Oxford Bibliographies

Biographical sources

Works that describe the life of people who share one or more common characteristics (identity, profession, place, time, ect.). 

Example: Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History

Catalogues / catalogs

An organized list of items in a collection, an exhibition, or other intentional gathering of materials. This work often provides brief item-level descriptions of physical or other relevant characteristics. 

Example: A Catalogue of Greek Manuscripts


An alphabetically arranged list of the principal words or selected words in a text, or in the works of an author, giving the precise location of each word in the text, with a brief indication of its context. 

Example: A Concordance of the Qur’an


A single or multi-volume work that contains brief explanatory entries for terms related to a specific subject or field of inquiry. Entries are usually arranged alphabetically..

Example: Oxford English Dictionary


A list of people, companies, institutions, organizations, etc., often in alphabetical order, that provides contact information and other relevant details.

Example: The Grants Register 2022


A book or set of books containing authoritative summary information about a variety of topics in the form of short essays, usually arranged alphabetically by heading.

Example: Women and Gender in Medieval Europe


A publication providing an alphabetically arranged list of specialized vocabulary of a given subject or field of study, with brief definitions.

Example: Glossary of Morphology


Single-volume publications that provide concise factual information on a specific subject, organized systematically for quick and easy access.

Example: The Oxford handbook of positive psychology


An alphabetically arranged list of headings consisting of the people, places, and subjects covered in a written work, with page numbers to refer the reader to the point in the text at which information pertaining to the heading is found. In large multi-volume reference works, the last volume may be devoted entirely to indexes. 

Example: See any multi-volume reference work

Style Guides

Resources that describe a set rules and guidelines for writing in a variety of contexts. These works include descriptions of how to cite, how to format a paper or a reference page, what font to use, what size that font should be, and much more.  

Example: Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA)

Note: This list of reference works by type is not exhaustive. Please use LibrarySearch to discover others types and formats. 


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