Libraries collect and preserve the graphic records of human experience.1 Not every experience is documented, and not every documented experience is collected and preserved. How, then, can you know what part of the historical record remains for you to study? Reference sources are your map to the graphic records of human experience.
Even if every human experience hasn't been documented, and every document hasn't been preserved, there remains a plethora of sources available for the historian to study. Here at the University of Illinois Library, you have access to over 14 million printed books, 9 million microforms, 120,000 periodicals, 148,000 sound recordings, 1 million audiovisual resources, 280,000 e-books, 29,000 cubic feet of archival records, 3 terabytes of electronic records, and 650,000 maps—that's over 24 million potential primary sources for your research. Reference sources are your map to the Library's collections.
Half of one aisle at the University Library's remote storage facility on Oak Street.
Use reference sources for factual information like the date the Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law, or where in the United States Statutes at Large to find it. You can also use them to find more complex information, like marriage law in Islam. They often include bibliographies, making them profitable places to begin a research project.
Encyclopedias attempt to summarize, as concisely as possible, the state of knowledge in a field of inquiry. Use encyclopedias to find background information on your topic, and to familiarize yourself with what is already known on the topic. A good encyclopedia can be a valuable starting point for your research, and often contains recommendations for additional reading.
There are many encyclopedias that compile knowledge about a specific nation or region. For example, Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, Encyclopaedia Iranica, or Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. These encyclopedias will often include entries on marriage, divorce, and the family--they make excellent places to begin exploring possible topics. We've included a few of the more substantial titles in the list below.
Three online reference collections that students often find useful are:
Historical Aspects of the Family
Contemporary and Legal Aspects of the Family
Religious Aspects of the Family
Gender and the Family
1. Jesse H. Shera, The Foundations of Education for Librarianship (New York: Becker and Hayes, 1972): 193.