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 start? Use this chart to find out.

What type of reference source do you need?

If you want...


A starting point for your research

Multipurpose reference sources

Background information on a topic


The meaning of a word or an idea


Practical information on a topic or a  comprehensive overview

Handbooks, manuals, guides, etc.

Information about a person or group of people

Biographical sources

Information about a place

Maps, atlases, and gazetteers

Data, numbers, or facts on a topic

Statistics, almanacs, and yearbooks

Suggestions for further reading or other types of information

Bibliographies and other reference sources

Subject-specific reference sources

Check the Background information tab in our research and course guides for sources recommended by subject specialist librarians.

Multipurpose reference sources

Multipurpose reference resources contain hundreds of different types of reference sources. They are the best place to start a search if you are not sure what specific type of reference source to consult.

Gale Virtual Reference Library

Gale Virtual Reference Library
Try this first if you are unsure where to search. Contains over 600 reference sources across a wide range of topics.

Oxford Reference Online

Oxford Reference Online
Contains over 250 reference sources. Includes languages, science and medicine, humanities and social sciences, and business and professional topics.

Sage Knowledge

Sage Knowledge
Contains over 250 reference sources. Particularly strong for Criminology, Sociology, and Communications.