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Research Skills Tutorial

This is a self-paced, non-credit course that covers research skills, critical thinking, media and internet literacy, and understanding the complexities of the modern information environment (including libraries.)

Getting Background Information About Your Topic

Using reference information sources

Reference information sources can be helpful when beginning the research process. They can give you a working knowledge of your chosen subject area.

  • You can gain a broad and general understanding of the topic, or background information.
  • You can learn the important names, key facts, issues and debates, and answers to questions.
  • You can get familiar with the vocabulary of the subject area so you can understand new terminology and formulate good keyword searches.

Types of reference information sources

There are many different kinds of reference information sources, and each is useful for finding a certain type of information.


Screenshot of part of a page of an online, subject-specific dictionary. The entry being displayed is "glass ceiling."

  • Provide word definitions and other information about words. There are many other types of dictionaries. 
    • A bilingual dictionary translations from one language to another.
    • A thesaurus contains synonyms, and often antonyms, for words.
    • An etymological dictionary contains historical word origins.
    • A subject dictionary is a good source for longer and more in-depth definitions using the vocabulary of a particular area of study.


Screenshot of part of the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. The entry is "ethnobotany."

  • Provide brief articles explaining a topic. There are general encyclopedias like Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. There are also subject-specific encyclopedias that provide detailed, advanced and technical content in a particular area of study.


Screenshot of part of a page of an atlas, showing a map and some text. The map is labeled "The Perfume Routes of Antiquity" and is too small to read anything else.

  • Contain maps that associate different types of data (e.g., populations, politics, etc.) with geography. There are different types of maps available.
    • 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.


Screenshot of part of a page of a gazetteer.

  • Contain geographical information (often using latitude and longitude coordinates) that is cross-referenced with demographic, political, historical, and other kinds of information. Gazetteers may be included in atlases but there are also standalone gazetteers that do not contain maps.


Screenshot of part of a page of The Nonprofit Almanac 2012. The text is cut off but it seems to explain the scope, sources, and limitations of the data in the chapter.

  • Annual publications that contain time sensitive information about geography and politics, economic data, astronomical data, world records, tides, weather, statistics, etc.


Screenshot of part of a page of a directory. It has the name of a company, address, and other contact information.

  • Contain contact information for persons, organizations or companies. They may also contain descriptions of those entities.     
  • Some kinds of directories contain "how to locate" information for data or documents.

Biographical Resources

  • Screenshot of part of a page from Biography Resource Center. The entry is on Ben Carson and gives his basic personal and career information. The contents menu is on the left of the text about the person.Contain information about the lives and accomplishments of notable people in various fields of achievement or areas of study. 


Screenshot of part of the Manual of Psychosocial Rehabilitation. This page is about symptom rating scales.

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

Handbooks and Guides

Screenshot of a page in The Neuropsychology Handbook.

  • Contain detailed, advanced information about a particular subject area. This can include facts about a subject or instructions for operating a device or completing a procedure.

Guides to the Literature and Annotated Bibliographies

Screenshot of the cover of Libraries and Information in the Arab World: An Annotated Bibliography.

  • 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.

Where to find reference information sources

Reference information sources are available in print in the reference sections of libraries that have physical collections.

They are also available online. There are e-book versions of many reference books (which you can find in our library's Catalog and there are also databases devoted to reference information sources, such as Credo Reference and Gale Virtual Reference Library, which you can find in our library's Dictionary and Encyclopedia Subject Guide.

There are also reference information sources freely available on the Web. Just be sure to evaluate these the way you would any other source before basing your research on them.

Do not cite reference information sources

Do not cite reference books, such as dictionaries or encyclopedias, or textbooks because they do not contain original research. They are what we call tertiary sources (more on that later), which means that they are based on original research from multiple sources. When you are writing a paper, you should be citing original sources, not sources based on them.

Accessibility Note

Please note: If you need to request accommodations with content linked to on this guide, on the basis of a disability, please contact Disability Services by emailing them at  Requests for accommodations should be submitted as early as possible to allow for sufficient planning. If you have questions, please visit the disability services website