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  Library Skills Series

How to Use Reference Books





A reference book, such as a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a yearbook, or a directory is compiled to provide facts or definite pieces of information of varying length. A reference book is intended to be referred to rather than read from cover to cover. (L.M. Harrod, The Librarian's Glossary. London: Andre Deutsch, 1977. p.692). In other words, a reference book would be used when a reader needs to know the meaning of a word (a dictionary), or wants to learn about the life of an important person (biographical dictionary). This is one reason why a reference book does not circulate and is always kept in the library for all readers to use any time they need it.

A reference work may be a one-volume or multi-volume book. It can be also found in an electronic format of a CD-ROM.

The abbreviation Ref. printed on top of the call number of a book is the mark which distinguishes a reference book from one that may be borrowed.


Material in a reference book is usually arranged in alphabetical order so that topics may be located quickly and easily. Usually an index is provided to serve as the direct guide to the thousands of topics treated in the book, or to locate the smaller subdivisions of the larger subjects. An important element in the arrangement of material in a reference book is the Cross Reference. A cross reference will refer the reader from a subject entry that is not used to one that is used. The following is an example from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
           Allies  See     Allied    Powers

At the end of articles in reference books, bibliography is usually provided.


Reference works fall into 2 categories:

  1. General: Those which are broad in scope, not limited to any single subject but cover all subject areas and branches of knowledge. General encyclopedias such as Britannica and Americana, handbooks, and yearbooks fall within this category.

  2. Subject-related or specialized: Those which give detailed information brought together from several sources on one particular subject.
    e.g. Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
          McGraw Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology

Types of Reference Works

* Encyclopedias

An encyclopedia is a book or set of books that gives information on all branches of knowledge or on one branch, generally in articles arranged alphabetically and signed by the authors.

A good encyclopedia should have a subject index whether in a separate volume, or at the back of the book, in order to locate topics easily. It is important to use the subject index first because it shows in which volumes and on what pages a particular subject is discussed.

An encyclopedia, general or specialized, is a good source of information. Since an encyclopedia gives an overview of a subject, it is essential for a student writing a paper to refer first to an encyclopedia to get a general background which will provide him/her with a good start on the paper. This will also enable the student to narrow down the topic of research.

Some of the encyclopedias available at Bethlehem University Library include:

Encyclopedia Britannica consists of 32 volumes divided as follows:

  Vol. 1 – 12 Micropedia: Ready Reference, includes short articles.  
  Vol. 13 – 29 Macropedia: Knowledge in Depth, includes longer articles.  
   2 volumes  Index.  
  1 volume

Propaedia:   Outline   of    knowledge.
This arrangement makes Ency. Britannica one of the best general encyclopedias.


Encyclopedia Americana
Great Soviet Encyclopedia
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics
International Encyclopedia of Education
McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology.

* Dictionaries 

A dictionary is a reference work which gives the meaning of words, their origin, and the way they are pronounced.

A dictionary may be: Monolingual:

 listing words and their meanings in the same language e.g.Webster's Dictionary of the English language


 lists words in one language and gives their meaning in another. e.g.- A1-Mawrid English-Arabic Dictionary


 lists words and their meanings in two or more languages e.g. Dictionnaire Trilingue: Arabe-Francais-Anglais

There are also dictionaries that list the terms of a subject and their meanings e.g.
  A Dictionary of the Physical Sciences
  A Dictionary of the Social Sciences: English-French-Arabic

 *Biographical Dictionaries

  These dictionaries give information on the lives of important people. There are 3 major types of such dictionaries in relation to the people included:
  • People in general, international in scope.
       e.g. Dictionary of International Biography   

  • People in general but of the same nationality.
       e.g. Who's Who in the Arab World
  • People belonging to a profession or a certain field of knowledge
       e.g. Dictionary of Scientific Biography.



A yearbook is a reference which gives facts and other historical information as having      occurred during a particular year. A yearbook may be of general scope or limited to one subject.
      e.g. Yearbook of World Affairs.
             Yearbook of Agriculture.

A general encyclopedia is usually updated by publishing a yearbook.
     e.g. The Britannica Book of the Year..

 *   Almanacs

An almanac, usually an annual reference, contains a variety of information such as statistics and useful facts on various topics.
       e.g. World Almanac

 * Handbooks 

A handbook is a reference which contains basic and brief information on specific subjects
     e.g.  Handbook of Business

 *   Atlases

An atlas is a geographical reference book of maps. A map is a drawing of all or part of the earth. An atlas would contain a variety of geographical information in addition to maps of different types such as maps which show climate, population, produce and transportation routes, etc.
      .e.g.  The Times Atlas of the World.  

 There are many other types of reference works such as gazetteers, bibliographies and directories


Careful handling of a reference book is very essential for keeping it in good shape. Keeping reference books in order in the Reference section is a must  so that readers can find them quickly.


This Series is Dedicated To: 

Br. Anton de Roeper, FSC
Vice Chancellor (1987-1993)

For his strong support to the Library as reflected in his statement: "I remain convinced that the frequency of student access to the library facilities is a very good indicator of the quality of intellectual work undertaken  in  the  University. In  the   academic sphere this is my chief preoccupation".

Bethlehem University Library,
1996 All rights reserved


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