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Research Skills Tutorial

Get Background Information & Context By Using Reference Sources

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

  • Gain a general understanding of the topic

  • Understand the context of your topic

  • Learn important facts, names, issues, and vocabulary associated with your topic

The most common background sources are encyclopedias and dictionaries. Your textbook also provides background information.

Finding Reference Sources

The Lewis Library has access to hundreds of online reference sources.

Reference books are also available on the third floor of the Library near D303. 

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

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Credo is an easy-to-use tool for starting research. Use this box to search hundreds of full-text reference titles, as well as 500,000+ images and audio files and over 1,000 videos.

Types Of References Sources

Dictionaries provide not only word definitions but information about concepts and people. 

  • An etymological dictionary contains historical word origins.
  • A thesaurus contains synonyms, and often antonyms, for words.
  • A bilingual dictionary translates from one language to another.
  • A subject dictionary is a good source for longer and more in-depth definitions using the vocabulary of a particular area of study.

Here are a couple examples:

Encyclopedias provide brief articles explaining a topic. There are general encyclopedias and subject-specific encyclopedias that provide detailed, advanced and technical content in a particular area of study.

Here are a couple examples:

Directories contain contact information for persons, organizations or companies. They may also contain descriptions of those entities.   

Here are a couple examples: 

Almanac are annual publications that contain time-sensitive information about geography and politics, economic data, astronomical data, world records, tides, weather, statistics, etc.

Here are a couple examples:

Atlases 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.

Gazetteers 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.

Here are a couple examples: 

Biographical resources contain information about the lives and accomplishments of notable people in various fields of achievement or areas of study. 

Here are a couple examples: 

Handbooks and guides 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.

Here are a couple examples:

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