Get Background Information Using Reference Tools

While primary and secondary sources will provide most of the information you will want to cite in your work, reference tools are helpful at the beginning of the research process.  Reference tools, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, are a great way to get a working knowledge of your chosen subject area.  This can include:

  • background information (e.g., important names, key facts, issues, answers to questions, etc.)
  • learning the vocabulary, so you can ask clearer, more specific questions
  • developing a list of keywords to search more accurately in databases

Here are some options for obtaining print reference tools.  The advantage of online reference tools is their searchability. There are databases containing many reference sources, and you can keyword search them all at once.

Whether online or in print, there are a number of types of reference tools. Each is useful for finding different kinds of information.

Dictionaries provide word definitions. You are probably familiar with something like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which provides college-level definitions for English words, with pronunciation keys and examples of the word in a sentence. is a free online dictionary based on the Random House dictionary. There are many other types of dictionaries, including:

  • bilingual dictionary – translations from one language to another (e.g., Castel’s Spanish-English Dictionary)
  • thesaurus – synonyms (and often antonyms) for words (e.g., Roget’s Thesaurus)
  • etymological dictionary – word origins (e.g., Oxford English Dictionary)
  • subject dictionary – longer and more in-depth definitions for the vocabulary of a particular area of study.  Many subject dictionaries can be found in Oxford Reference Online (e.g., Black’s Medical Dictionary)

Encyclopedias provide brief articles explaining a topic. You’ve probably heard of World Book Encyclopedia or Encyclopedia Americana. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia whose content is contributed and verified by Internet users. (See our section on evaluating information resources.)

There are also subject-specific encyclopedias that provide detailed, advanced and technical content in a particular area of study.  Gale Virtual Reference Library and Credo Reference both have large, diverse collections of subject encyclopedias (e.g., Encyclopedia of Biometrics).

Atlases contain maps that associate different types of data (e.g., populations, politics, etc.) with geography. National Geographic provides a good online atlas at

In addition:

  • political maps show countries, states or provinces, counties, cities, towns, and villages
  • road maps show streets, roads, and highways
  • topographical maps show the lay of the land
  • demographic maps show population statistics
  • historical maps compare geographical and political information across eras
  • gazetteers supplement atlases with cross-referenced geographical information

Directories contain contact information for persons, organizations or companies. They may also contain descriptions of those entities (e.g., white pages).

Biographical Resources contain information about the lives and accomplishments of notable people in various fields of achievement or areas of study (e.g., Biography Resource Center).

Manuals contain technical, how-to information on everything from operating a device to performing  a sophisticated task, such as repairing a car.

Handbooks and Guides contain detailed, advanced information about a particular subject area.  Search the our  Ebook collection for handbooks or guides on your topic (e.g., A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices,  McCoy’s Guide to Theatre and Performance Studies).

Guides to the literature and annotated bibliographies list and describe information sources (e.g., books, articles, etc.) in a particular subject area.

  • They may be exhaustive (include everything) or selective.
  • Bibliographies of web resources are sometimes called Internet bibliographies or pathfinders.

The library has a substantial collection of online reference tools available through Dictionary & Encyclopedia Search on the library home page. Once inside Dictionary & Encyclopedia Search, use the blue tabs to navigate from page to page and explore the content on each page. Some of the pages require you to enter your college login and password.

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a brief course in information literacy