Week 1: Introduction to Reference

Please, first, be sure to have carefully read the syllabus and orientation.


The word reference comes from the verb "refer", which means "to turn to for aid or information." Any source which is consulted for aid or information on a topic is a reference source. Therefore, the entire library is a reference collection, because it was selected, organized and arranged for study and reference.

In any library there are some sources which are consulted more frequently than others for certain kinds of information; these are sources which, because of their organization and arrangement, lend themselves to quick and easy use. Most libraries have what is called a "reference collection", and it is made up of these sources in various formats. The reference collection is not a separate library, but is only one of the parts of the total library that students will use in their search for material. At the Palo Alto College library the reference collection is not separate but is incorporated into the collection as a whole. This is so that the student, going to the call number for the subject s/he is seeking will encounter ALL the books on the subject, including the reference books.

The term "reference book" has come to mean a specific kind of publication which has been planned to be consulted for specific items of information rather than read throughout. Reference books contain facts that have been brought together from many sources and organized for quick and easy use. They are usually in an alphabetical or chronological order, or in order by the use of indexes and cross references. An understanding of what reference books are, the kinds that are available, the kinds of questions each type will answer, and how each book is arranged will help the user acquire the needed information.

There are two types of reference books: 1. General reference books which contain the needed information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, biographical dictionaries, directories, atlases, and gazetteers. Some general reference books tell the user where the information can be found, such as indexes and bibliographies. General reference books are usually broad in scope and are not limited to any particular subject. The kinds of general reference books, the purposes they serve and examples of each are listed below:

1. A dictionary provides information about words--meaning, derivation, spelling, pronunciation, and usage.

a. Webster's Third International Dictionary of the English Language
b. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

2. An encyclopedia is concerned with subjects. It gives an overview of a topic, including definition, description, background and bibliographical references.

a. World Book Encyclopedia
b. Encyclopedia Americana

3. An index points out where information can be found. Most hard copies of indexes have been replaced by online databases. We will discuss this.

4. A yearbook, or annual, presents the events of the past year in brief, concise form.

a. Britannica Book of the Year
b. Best American Short Stories

5. A handbook provides miscellaneous items of information.

a. Robert's Rules of Order
b. Famous First Facts

The other type of reference book (2) is called specialized. They are usually arranged by subject. They are devoted to a specific subject area, such as literature, art or history. Some examples of specialized reference books are:

Don't forget to take the quiz. (Go to Canvas in ACES.)

Colby Glass, MLIS, Professor Emeritus