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Background reference sources or reference resources: Home

How 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. Different kinds of reference sources provide:

  • overviews of subjects to help you find a topic to focus on
  • background information and key facts on your topic
  • definitions of important words or concepts
  • suggestions for more sources about your topic

They are a very useful place to start your research and a valuable resource to consult as you work on a project. SFU Libraries have both print and online reference sources -- check out both to be sure you have the best ones for your topic.

Not sure what kind of reference source you need? 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

Jump straight to reference sources in your subject area:

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.