There was a time when reference librarians relied on reference books to answer library patrons’ reference questions, and then consulted periodicals (magazines, newspapers, and journal articles) for more in-depth research. In recent decades we’ve moved toward online resources for most queries. Some reference tools became obsolete, but many offer the researcher current information, original ideas, and new perspectives on concepts. Generally, reference books are dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, or indexes that you wouldn’t want to read from cover-to-cover. Typically, you would look something up to find a short discussion or definition, or find a lead to more detailed information. They are great sources for advance reading on a topic that you are thinking of using for a big project. Get the general ideas and vocabulary into your mind before setting out on your research journey. I’ll describe a few useful reference treasures in this post, but if you visit the Reference Area of the Library keep your eyes open for interesting tools that can add a new dimension to your research paper, speech, or creative writing.
Suppose you are researching a topic and you decide your paper or speech would be more meaningful if you could put that topic in historical context. Look at AMERICAN DECADES (Vincent Tompkins, ed. Gale Research,1996). This series of books (each volume focuses on a decade) makes up a giant timeline of what was going on through American history from 1900 to the present in World Events, Arts, Business & Economy, Education, Fashion, Government and other knowledge areas. It also includes profiles of “Headline Makers” and blurbs on notable people who died from each area in that decade. So perhaps you are writing about a government-related topic and you’d like to know what was happening in business in a certain year, or maybe you want to see what social issues or art movements might have influenced fashion in a certain decade. This book is organized so that you can compare these perspectives efficiently. There is a similar series called AMERICAN ERAS that you might also find useful. Use this call number to find these: REF973.92 A512.
We can find good data about countries around the world easily on the World Wide Web, but usually this information only goes so far. If you require more in-depth information about a country’s political, educational, economic, or other kind of environment, look at THE STATESMAN’S YEARBOOK (Barry Turner, ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). This tool is updated every year, and you’ll be surprised at how much data is included for every country. So, if you’re writing about a place, formally or informally, it behooves you to read through the information in the current issue of this book which is created by experts with credentials. By the way, larger libraries often save older editions of The Statesman’s Yearbook so that you can compare current information about Education in Malta with that of 1963, for example. Find this book here: REF320.05 S797 2014.
The ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FOLKLORE AND LITERATURE (Mary Ellen Brown and Bruce A Rosenberg, eds. ABC-CLIO, 1998) is the reference book that inspired me to write this post. I had seen the title, but had never looked inside, so I was surprised to find that this book covers folklore plus literature and writers closely connected to folklore. Many of these entries will be familiar to you. If you are thinking of writing about the medieval Beowulf as literature, you might check this source to learn about this story in the earlier oral tradition. If you are looking for information about Joseph Campbell and especially his work on the ‘hero’s journey’ you can find that in here, too. (Did you know that the Yoda character in Star Wars was based on Joseph Campbell himself? I learned that here.) If you read the entry on Quilting, you will not find instructions for the ‘Double Windmill’ block or contemporary quilting television stars. You will find there a history of the quilting tradition among women and hidden meanings of certain blocks and techniques as they were passed down through different quilting cultures. It would take a while to glean this information from other sources. Find this book here: REF803 E56.
As you can see, there are indeed some research treasures in the Reference Department. Authors and editors of these books have researched their topics over years and sometimes entire careers and added their own original thought. Some are designed by or with librarians to answer frequent reference queries. You, the researcher, will benefit!