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.
Encyclopedias attempt to summarize the state of knowledge in a given field of inquiry. That field of inquiry is usually defined in the title. For example, the Encyclopedia of the Mexican American War summarizes what is known about this conflict (as of the date of the encyclopedia's publication!). Encyclopedias not only give you the broad overview of the field, but they often recommend sources (usually secondary sources, but sometimes also primary sources) to consult for further research.
A bibliography is a list of documents, usually published documents like books and articles. This type of bibliography is more accurately called "enumerative bibliography". An enumerative bibliography will attempt to be as comprehensive as possible, within whatever parameters established by the bibliographer.
Bibliographies will list both secondary and primary sources. They are perhaps most valuable to historians for identifying primary sources. (They are still useful for finding secondary sources, but increasingly historians rely on electronic resources, like article databases, to locate secondary sources.)
Think of a bibliography as a guide to the source base for a specific field of inquiry. A high quality bibliography will help you understand what kinds of sources are available, but also what kinds of sources are not available (either because they were never preserved, or because they were never created in the first place).
Two useful databases that index biographies are:
The Library also has databases that provide direct full text access to biographical information:
Biographical encyclopedias tend to be focused on a specific field of inquiry:
To find book-length biographies, browse under the subject heading:
Or else browse under the subject heading for a specific person, such as:
Some biographies might be filed under a narrower heading, which will take the form of the person's name, plus the subdivision "Biography". For example:
To browse subject headings in the Library Catalog, you must use the:
1. Jesse H. Shera, The Foundations of Education for Librarianship (New York: Becker and Hayes, 1972): 193.