Libraries collect and preserve the graphic records of human experience.1 However, 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, and to collections at other libraries.
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.
Three online reference collections that students often find useful are:
Below are some encyclopedias relevant to research for this course:
Bibliographies, handbooks, and guides can assist you in charting a path through the vast amount of research available on a topic. Specialized bibliographies can also help you identify difficult-to-find materials.
The most common reference sources of factual information are almanacs, chronologies, and statistical abstracts. Increasingly, databases make it possible to interact with large statistical datasets that until recently would have been possible only with advanced training. Even with the ability to manipulate statistical datasets, it's important to remember that interpreting statistics still requires specialized knowledge, which is why reference sources like statistical abstracts remain important to researchers without that advanced training.
1. Jesse H. Shera, The Foundations of Education for Librarianship (New York: Becker and Hayes, 1972): 193.