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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.)

Get Background Information About Your Topic

Use reference sources for background reading

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

  • Gain a broad and general understanding of the topic.
  • Learn important names, key facts, issues and debates, and answers to questions.
  • Get familiar with the vocabulary related to the topic so you can effectively search the scholarly literature..

Where to find reference sources

The college library has access to hundreds of online reference sources. You can access these titles in the A-Z List of Encyclopedias and Dictionaries here.

Reference books are also available in print at libraries that have physical collections. Contact your local academic or public library to see what they have available in print (you will not normally be able to access the online collections of other academic libraries).

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

Types of reference 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.

Do not cite reference information sources

You do not normally cite reference materials, such as dictionaries or encyclopedias, or textbooks, because they do not contain original research. They are what are called tertiary sources (more on that later), which means they are typically a condensed version of multiple secondary sources, usually aimed at non-scholarly audiences. 

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 Accessibility Resources and Services by emailing them.  Requests for accommodations should be submitted as early as possible to allow for sufficient planning. If you have questions, please visit the Accessibility Resources and Services website.