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Reference Books or Specialized Encyclopedias

For research purposes, you may be looking for books that synthesize all the information on one topic to support a particular argument or thesis. Reference books or specialized encyclopedias cover virtually any topic, may be written by one expert or several, and their information is often presented in a straight scholarly manner. Specialized subject encyclopedias are collections of in-depth entries focused on one field of study. In contrast to most regular nonfiction books which are often read in their entirety, reference books and encyclopedias are designed for the user to read sections as needed.

When do I use reference books or specialized encyclopedias?
Use reference books or specialized encyclopedias when you need the following:

  • background information on a topic
  • key ideas, important dates, or concepts
  • summaries of research to support an argument

Where do I find reference books or specialized encyclopedias?
Reference books or specialized encyclopedias can be found in print, online, or in a periodicals database. Many are available at your local school or public library. In print, it can be a single book or multiple volumes. They are typically found in the reference section of a library. Use an online catalog to find the call number. Most public and school libraries use the Dewey Decimal system to organize their books while college libraries use the Library of Congress system.  

How is a reference book or specialized encyclopedia organized?
They have a title page, verso (back of the title page that has publication information), table of contents, chapters or headings that divide the book's content into sections (topics, time periods, etc.), notes, bibliography (sources the author used), and an index. A specialized subject encyclopedia is typically arranged alphabetically by subject.

How do I use a print reference book or specialized encyclopedia?
Reference books or specialized encyclopedias often have a table of contents near the front of the book. This can give you a good overview of how the book is arranged and what is covered. To find information, look for it alphabetically by subject or consult the index in the back of the volume or the master index for the set. This is an alphabetical listing of the topics in the books and what pages they can be found. There may be more than one index, e.g. subject index, geographical index, personal name index. Use the index to locate the pages you need.

How do I use an online (eBook) reference book or specialized encyclopedia?
Online reference books or specialized encyclopedias may be exact replicas of the equivalent print book, while some are published exclusively online. They often have a searchable index, or a typical index that links automatically to the page indicated. Typically online books are searchable by keyword or subject.

How do I use a database to find (eBook) reference books or specialized encyclopedias?
Searching a database by topic will result in sources from magazines, journals, newspapers, eBooks, and more. Most databases' advanced search feature allows your search to be limited by the type of source you are looking for. You can also limit your source by date of article or by a specific publication.