Background reference sources or reference resources: Home

How and why to use reference sources or background sources

Reference sources (otherwise known as reference resources, or background sources) are designed to help you find specific types of information quickly

Use reference sources to:

  • get keywords and names for more effective advanced searching
  • read a quick overview of a new subject
  • find key facts and background information that will help you assess other resources
  • learn definitions of important words or concepts
  • see suggestions for more sources about your topic (including the best-known sources).

Use reference sources before launching into more detailed sources like journal articles and books -- and check back as you dig more deeply into your topic.

What kind of reference source do you need?

Not sure where to begin? Here are some quick definitions of the different types:

  A starting point for your research

Try Multipurpose reference sources first! These are large databases or collections of different types of reference sources, covering broad subject areas. For instance:


 Background information on a topic

Use Encyclopedias to quickly get up to speed on a new topic, or as a starting point in your research process.

Encyclopedias can be very general and introductory, or extremely specialised and academic.


 The meaning of a word or an idea

Use Dictionaries for definitions of words and concepts -- as well as translations. 


 Practical information on a topic or a  comprehensive overview

Start with Handbooks, manuals, guides (etc.) for quick facts, formulas, and other practical information. 


 Information about a person or group of people

Biographical sources can give you information about individuals -- and also let you search for people by topics. 


 Information about a place

Looking for geographical information? Start with Maps, atlases, and gazetteers.


 Data, numbers, or facts on a topic

Need numbers or quick facts about a topic or time? Start with Statistics, almanacs, and yearbooks.


 Need more? 

When you have to dig deeper, go to Bibliographies and other reference sources.


Subject-specific reference sources

For recommendations from subject-specialist librarians, check the Background information tab in our research and course guides.