What background information do you need?
The importance of reference materials
Once you have analysed the question, it may be helpful to spend a little time to consult appropriate reference materials. These resources can provide an overview of your topic, definitions of key terms and jargon, summaries of the basic ideas, and even subject-specific lists of references about your topic.
To make effective use of reference materials, you need to know:
- What types of reference materials exist
- Where they can be found.
Types of reference materials
Reference materials include:
Dictionaries can be general or subject-based (Blackwell’s Dictionary of Nursing). Use dictionaries to define unfamiliar terms. The Oxford English Dictionary is often a good place to start.
Oxford Reference Online
Oxford Reference Online contains a number of dictionaries on a range of topics. You can use this resource to find definitions, synonyms and other basic information.
A thesaurus is a list of words with similar meanings (synonyms) and words with opposite meanings (antonyms). Thesauri will help you find alternative keywords and phrases for the important words identified during the process of analysing your assignment topic. There are general thesauri (Roget's Thesaurus) and subject-oriented ones (Legal Thesaurus).
Encyclopedias can also be general (Encyclopedia Britannica) or specialised (McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology). They generally contain definitions, descriptions, statistics, diagrams, maps, and sometimes detailed essays and comprehensive bibliographies.
Gale Virtual Reference Library
The Gale Virtual Reference Library contains a wide range of encyclopedias and specialised reference sources that you can use immediately.
The Library subscribes to a number of electronic encyclopedias. Links to these are available from the Encyclopedias and Dictionaries page.
These are lists of people, addresses, telephone numbers and other contact details (Directory of Australian Associations). In addition, directories often contain brief descriptions of each organisation.
Such reference works tend to be subject-based and provide factual, practical and instructional information (Handbook for Research Methods in Health Sciences).
Bibliographies are some of the most useful reference tools available. These are research or literature guides for particular subjects. They list many sources or references that you can investigate (The Leisure Literature: A Guide to Sources in Leisure Studies, Fitness, Sports, and Travel).
Other reference materials
The list of other sorts of reference materials is almost endless. It includes biographies, statistical sources, atlases, and yearbooks.
The easiest ways to find relevant reference material are to:
- Look through the Reference collection in the Law Library or on the Ground Floor of Dixson Library. Note that you cannot borrow Reference items, although these can be read inside the library.
- Search for relevant titles in the e-reference packages found on the Encyclopedias and Dictionary page.
- Ask at the Service Desk at Dixson Library or the Law Library for information on useful reference sources.
- Make an enquiry using the online Ask a Librarian form.
- Perform a keyword search in the Library Catalogue, using the name of your topic (eg economics) and a keyword such as encyclopedia or dictionary.
- Discuss your reference needs with your unit-coordinator or lecturer.
This page discussed the following issues:
- the differences between different types of reference materials (dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, directories, handbooks, manuals and bibliographies)
- the location of relevant reference materials and who to ask for help in finding these.
Let's go on to examine some other questions which you need to consider when using reference materials.
Try these quick self-test questions to assess what you have learnt from this module.