Topic 2: Reference sources


2.1. Introduction

Reference sources are information sources or tools that embody specific or general information requirements of the information seekers. The information is needed by the users to either advance their knowledge or help them to solve academic or professional problems.

They can also be defined as documents that possess a reliable databank or factual, conceptual and addressional information that can provide the right answers to different queries presented by patrons or users.

They are secondary or derived documents based on original or primary documents.
They do not contain new knowledge but they repeat and organize knowledge that is available.
Secondary sources are information sources about primary or original information, which have been modified or selected for the purpose of an audience.

Reference is a word derived from the word ‘refer’ which means to cross check, to direct or to see to. In information science, it means to direct or refer for information confirmation.
Reference collection in a library or information center is referred by the users for specific answers and they answer questions varying from facts to figures, to dates and locations, names and events, spellings and quotations and a lot more. It helps a user in getting quick answers and shortens the search time for the users. They contain explicit information arranged for quick use. Reference collection also refers to publications designed for reference purposes and are arranged so that specific information can be quickly extracted. They are not meant to be read from cover to cover, but consulted as the need arises.
They are used to look up for factual information of almost any kind, and they exist in almost all fields and are used for definitions, explanations, numerical data, names and addresses, brief introduction to subjects among others.

They are categorized into general reference sources and subject reference sources.
The general reference sources include encyclopedia, almanacs, atlases yearbooks, handbooks, manual and directories maps and atlases, gazetteers, biographies, bibliographies etcetera.

Subject reference sources include subject encyclopedias, dictionaries, subject yearbooks and others.
The reference sources are available in both book formats and electronic formats. A computer is required to access sources in electronic formats.

2.2. Types of Reference Sources

There are two classes or types of references source namely the source type and control- access or directional sources.

2.2.1. Source Type

They are those types of reference sources that embody specific or general information. They help users to advantage. Such sources are like Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, Almanacs/yearbooks, Handbooks, Geographical sources and others. Encyclopedias

A general encyclopedia is a reference source that contains information on all branches of knowledge. A subject encyclopedia treats comprehensively a specified branch of knowledge or literally work. General sources contains extensive information on all branches of knowledge. The entries are usually arranged in alphabetical order. General Encyclopedia contains information on almost all subjects and they attempt to give broad overview of the subjects.

Forms Of Encyclopedias

There are two forms of reference sources and in this case Encyclopedias namely; subject Encyclopedia which treats a specified branch of knowledge and General Encyclopedia which covers all branches of knowledge.
Features of a subject Encyclopedia

• The scope is limited to a clearly defined branch of knowledge e.g. chemical engineering. Information science or medicine
• Level of treatment is likely to be technical or scholarly. It is thus designed for use by experts and the length of articles range from a few lines to several pages.
• The articles are illustrated and may contain tables or charts.
Features of general Encyclopedia
• It contains fairly long articles presenting all branches of knowledge.
• Themes of Encyclopedias are selective. Only some major themes are thoroughly or exhaustively discussed.

Criteria for Evaluating Encyclopedias

(i) Purpose
(ii) Authority
(iii) Currency
(iv) Completeness
(v) Arrangement
(vi) Format (physical structure and content organization, Ink, Spacing, Cover, headings, type faces, binding
(vii) Scope- Coverage, content
(viii) Special features- e.g. indexes, table of content, lists of abbreviations, abstract, glossary, footnotes.
NB: Evaluation of a reference source aims at creating a good understanding of these sources or determine whether they are worth. Evaluation also helps to determine the currency and relevance of the reference sources. It also helps to improve in collection development and planning. It helps to avoid wastage of financial, physical and material resources.
(i) Purpose
The purpose for which the encyclopedia was intended has to be evaluated to determine whether it fulfills or accomplishes its purpose.
Clues of what the author expects his work to accomplish.
The entries in a table of contents are properly arranged to facilitate location and retrieval of information. A good reference source should accomplish its purpose e.g. an encyclopedia of dance should have information about dance.
(ii) Authority
These deals with the credentials of the contributors which is enhanced by the professional experience, academic qualifications, occupation of the contributors of the work etc. authority can also be judged from the previous works authored by the same author or contributors.
(iii) Currency
A good encyclopedia should be continuously revised to add new ideas and information.
NB. Data or information changes so quickly that last years almanacs or encyclopedias may be historically outdated to answering current series of questions. The currency can be determined from edition statement or date of publication. An information center should hence update its collection regularly.
(iv) Completeness
A good encyclopedia should portray completeness i.e. no significant information or data should be omitted.
(v) Arrangement
The series of an encyclopedia must have some systematic sequence to facilitate retrieval or access to its content. If possible, information should be arranged alphabetically in a dictionary form.
(vi) Format
It is evaluated in terms of the legibility the size of type faces and type fonts, spacing, the bolding of headings and subheadings, quality of paper, ink, the type of binding, type of cover etc.
Illustrations e.g. where charts, tables and diagrams are used, they should be clear and related to the text.
(vii) Consistency
Within the work itself the reader should be able to find the general type of information in each entry e.g. place of birth.
(viii) Scope
This highlights areas covered in the reference work. A good encyclopedia must state what is included in reference work and what is not included in the inclusion and the exclusion e.g. introduction.

(ix) Special features
A good encyclopedia should have features such as table of contents, index, and a list of abbreviations, foreword, and glossary all which will facilitate good understanding. Dictionaries
They are defined as compendiums of words in a language arranged in alphabetical order and defined in the same language or words in a language translated into one or more languages. A dictionary is a book which concerns itself with the meanings, pronunciation, usage, history, derivations among others. The words are usually organized in alphabetical order. They give comprehensive reading a language and help in standardizing of a language.
Dictionaries help in finding the right spellings, meanings, pronunciations and syllabications (words division). They indicate the major places, names, personal names, abbreviations etc.
General dictionaries provide information about words, their spellings, meaning and pronunciation, where they come from and how they are used. The words are entered alphabetically.
Forms of dictionaries
They are categorized as General English Language dictionaries both abridged and unabridged, foreign language dictionaries (bi-lingual) that give the meaning of one language into another and subject dictionaries that give definitions of words e.g. dictionary of geography, chemistry etc.
Evaluation Of Dictionaries
The following is the criteria followed in evaluating dictionaries:
1. Authority
2. Scope- it is considered from the following view points; purpose of the work, number of entries, special inclusions, vocabulary and emphasis is given on the number of definitions that can be found within the dictionary.
3. Word treatment- spellings (American or British) history of words or etymology
4. Currency- this means it must be kept current and be able to express new words or expressions like through the revised edition.
5. Format.
6. Special features i.e. list of places, colleges, universities, table of weights and measures or units and should have lists of abbreviations etc.

A directory is a list of persons or organizations systematically arranged usually in alphabetic or classed order giving addresses affiliations for individuals and addresses, inctions and similar data for organizations. Directories give information about individual firms, addresses or telephone numbers. They also give full names of an individual firm and they describe particular manufacturers products or services like the directory of information centers that give the names of the centers and the services offered. There is a wide range of these sources.
Some of them are published mainly to make provision for qualified personnel to be known and usually they provide names, addresses, qualifications and institutions where they work. Other directories contain information about institutions and they facilitate accessibility. The world of learning provides information on universities, colleges, research institutions, libraries and museums. ALMANACS
An almanac is a compendium of useful data and statistics relating to countries, personalities, events, subjects and others.
They are produced annually and contain information of a miscellaneous nature but predominantly statistical.
An almanac summarizes the current events of all kinds and hence contains current records of facts, statistics and charts like the Whittakers Almanac, which is useful in providing information through data, statistics and figures. It is an annual publication concerning a calendar frequently accompanied by astronomical data and other information. It can also be defined as a compendium of factual and statistical information retrospective as well as current covering local, national and international affairs. Almanacs give facts, statistics and basic information on almost everything. They are excellent reference sources for population, business, sports and agricultural statistics. They also list the elected officials of the states and local government. Typical almanacs will include a section of important events that occur in the year of passing e.g. in commerce, population and general statistics. YEARBOOKS
According to American Library Association (ALA). The glossary, an year book is an annual volume of information in a descriptive and statistical form sometimes limited to a special field.
It is an annual compendium of current information. The difference between Almanacs and yearbooks is that the former cover information of the previous years as well as considerable amounts of current materials and the latter usually covers current information of a given year. They are books of the year presenting events of the immediate past year through, brief articles, tables and charts. It is a supplement of an encyclopedia.


1. They are annuals meaning that they are published yearly
2. Both sources are ready reference sources
3. Almanacs contain both current and retrospective information
4. Yearbooks contain only current information
5. Either of the two provides simple figures/facts without explanation.


1. These sources provide quick and ready information to majority of questions raised by users.
2. They are the best reference sources to current trends and development in various fields of discipline.
3. They update standard text which are frequently revised.
4. Because of their recency, Almanacs/ yearbooks either directly or by their implication indicates trends for development for scientific advances.
5. They are also useful for providing single figures or facts that do not need explanation.
NB/ Except for updating and revision of almanacs, much of the same basic materials are carried over year after year. HAND BOOKS AND MANUALS

A hand book is a compilation of miscellaneous information in a compact and handy form. A handbook is a collection miscellaneous groups of facts centered on one central theme or subject area e.g. a hand book of chemistry, geography etc.

NB/ A hand book gives a good part of the information in a shorthand form freely employing tables, graphs, symbols, formulas etc and the jargons which only the experts of the subject can understand. They provide functional information on a particular subject and it may contain brief easy to consult tables, charts and illustrations. It is a hand reference source arranged in a brief, easy to consult format. MANUALS
A manual is an instruction book which provides instructions as to how to perform a job or how to do something by means of specific or clear direction. They are similar to hand books but serve more as guides. They give instructions to the user on how to do something. ATLASES
They are usually a one volume for maps, plates and charts of geographical areas like a map of Kenya. They have short articles, tables of statistics or additional map showing certain aspects of the level of population or other information. GLOSSARIES, THESAURUS, BIOGRAPHIES
A glossary is a collection of words that explain in details or in the right scientific term the meaning of words e.g. the glossary of library and information science.
A thesaurus is a list of words which explain the meanings in synonyms and related words and they give the strength of words in upper and lower meanings.
A biography is concerned with the lives of persons in total and gives the history of the persons depicting it in relation to the times the person lived.

They link information seekers to the appropriate information or source of information and they also aim at keeping control over the published literature. They range from bibliographies, catalogues, abstracts both in book form and electronic form or online.

A trained reference librarian should examine a reference source before it’s incorporated into the collection. He/she should consider the purpose of the source, its authority, scope and the proposed audience and probably, the arrangement. To determine the purpose refer to the table of contents, introduction, preface and index. For authority, one considers the qualifications of the author/s and the publisher’s credentials.

Revision Exercise 2.

1. Explain the importance of reference sources in an information center.
2. Discuss the criteria followed in the evaluation of reference sources.
3. State the reasons why evaluation is relevant to an information manager.
4. Compare the criteria of evaluating encyclopedias and dictionaries.
5. Discuss the various forms of reference sources.
6. Explain the role of computers in the management of reference sources.

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