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History 200: Dr. Rebecca Bates: Fall 2023: Getting Started

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Believe it or not, reference books are not designed for continuous reading. For those of us who read encyclopedias for fun this may come as a shock. Reference works have two major functions, First, they are one of the fastest ways to form a pool of  knowledge on a subject. With the goal of informing the reader rather than persuading them, reference books focus on the accepted story or facts. Deviations from the norm are noted. Beyond providing a pool of information that is not a cesspool, reference books point their users to the next level of research. This is most commonly done via suggested readings or bibliographies of books and journal articles. Reference works provide context. Students can browse a reference book on a broader subject to identify a research topic. Investing some time consulting reference works before you make the jump to searching for database articles, will allow you to work more efficiently. All of this amounts to working smart. 

The intended audience is a concern when consulting reference works. General reference works do not assume the reader has a profound knowledge of the subject and will concentrate on the basics. In academic settings their audience is lower level undergraduates and non-majors. Novice researcher should start with general reference sources and work their way up to academic reference works aimed at professionals, graduate students or upper level undergrads. 

For various reasons, professors strongly discourage or even disallow citing reference works. It is wise to always ask you professor if you are allowed to cite a reference work. Even if you cannot cite, reference works play a critical research role.

Our reference section includes books that are not true reference works but are held in reference to insure a copy is always available, or to protect items from defacing or theft. So, if you have questions ask your instructor or a librarian.


Reference works exist in both print and electronic formats. Please note that publishers often have a cavalier approach when it comes to titles. In particular, the terms encyclopedia and dictionary are almost interchangeable at times.

Encyclopedia – The term encyclopedia suggests an effort to incorporate knowledge into a larger package that utilizes graphics, images, timelines, maps and bibliographies. Newer encyclopedias often include primary documents. While the A to Z format is standard, some encyclopedias are organized chronologically or around themes.

Dictionary - Typically, a dictionary entries provide basic information similar in scale to a language dictionary. They are ideal for checking the basics such as spellings, dates, and major accomplishments. Common format is A to Z. 

Chronologies – Basically, it is a timeline dressed in its Sunday's best. Some are simple timelines of historic events. Others link events, individuals, politics, literature, the arts and sciences together offering a comprehensive picture of the intellectual and social landscape of a given period. They can be used to identify push pull factors in immigration. Historians often find these helpful as the discipline is structured chronologically rather than A to Z.

Atlases - Collections of maps, thematic, political maps and statistical data presented in map form. Atlases can be historic, provide information about an event or be devoted to contemporary circumstances. If you are wondering about the name on of the first atlases depicted the mythical Atlas shouldering the world on its cover. Many users maintain a preference for print maps and atlases. 

Bibliographies – These are often called “Book about Books.” In recent years these have become underused assets, but before the digital age bibliographies played a major role in academic research. These are valuable for identifying older material.

Handbook - Handbooks are generally essay collections representing the current thinking and scholarship in a given field. In Hutchins Library many handbooks reside in the circulating collection, but some are housed in reference as gap fillers in the collection.

Gazetteer - This is a geographical dictionary or directory providing locations and statistics.  They are often used in conjunctions with atlases and sheet maps. Before the Internet and digital mapping resources, gazetteers were very help for finding elevation along with longitude and latitude coordinates. 

Companion - This format varies dramatically from publisher to publisher, ranging from a brief dictionary like entry to scholarly essay collections. 


Not every historian or publisher define eras with uniform dates or attaches the same name to a period. While there is general agreement, these are not cast in bronze. For example, the 19th century can be defined as the standard 100 year period, or it can be event based such as 1789 to 1914 known as the "long nineteenth century" or a shorter period starting with the end of the Napoleonic Age and the start of WWI, 1815 to 1914.