Evaluating Reference Books

Evaluating and using new reference books

In this course you are learning about some of the most basic reference books, but there are thousands of other sources that exist and can help answer questions. In fact, in answering questions, you should think of the world as your resource and not feel you are limited to the "reference books." Every book, pamphlet and magazine In your library can help answer questions. People are a wonderful reference source. Knowing the experts in your own community can help you give excellent service to your patrons.

You will be receiving many new books over the years, both in reference and for the circulating collections. You will also run across books you have had for awhile that you are not familiar with. How can you quickly learn to evaluate and use these new titles?

First of all, it helps to understand parts of a book.

  1. Author - This is the person responsible for the contents of the book and whose name appears on the "Title Page." Sometimes there is an editor or compiler instead of an author, and sometimes the "author" is an agency or other group. In evaluating a reference book, you can ask yourself if you are familiar with the author's name and if that person is an authority in the field. For example, a book on astronomy by Carl Sagan would appear to be written by "an expert" in that subject.

  2. Title - Titles can often be very descriptive and tell you quite a bit about the book. Subtitles are especially helpful in this regard. The title, BEST ENCYCLOPEDIAS: A GUIDE TO GENERAL AND SPECIALIZED ENCYCLOPEDIAS leaves little doubt about the contents of that book. Not all titles are so helpful, but many can be good clues. Sometimes the title on the spine of the book (back edge) is not the same as the one on the title page. If you need to know the "official" title of a book, check the title page. That is the page near the front to the book that has both the title and author, and often the publisher and place of publication. In the WORLD ALMANAC, for example, the title page is the very first page of the book.

  3. Volume - In a set of several books, each will have its own volume number or letter.

  4. Edition - All copies of a book printed from a set of plates make up an edition. If additional copies are printed from the same plates, the book has been reprinted. But if any changes are made in the book, either bringing it up to date or adding material, it is called a new, revised or second (or later) edition. Since, as a general rule, using the latest available edition provides better, and more updated material, it's wise to check the edition you are using.

  5. Series - A series is a number of separate works which are related to each other in some way, and are issued in succession, normally by the publisher and often in uniform style with a collective title. Be careful not to confuse the series title and the book title. A Time-Life Book series is THE OLD WEST and the title of one of the volumes In the series is THE COWBOYS.

  6. Place of Publication -The place of publication usually appears on the title page, but sometimes it is on the "verso" or back of the title page. This can be significant if, for example, you have a book on gardening and it was published in England. You might be alert to advice that does not apply to the climate of Minnesota.

  7. Publisher's Name -This is usually found on the title page. Like authors, publishers gain good or bad reputations. Merriam-Webster's name as a dictionary publisher, for example, generally assures a high quality product.

  8. Date of publication -The copyright date can appear on the title page, or on the verso of the title page. This is one of the most important things to note about a reference book. Is the material still current?

  9. Foreword or preface -In the foreword or preface, the author states the purpose for writing the book and expresses thanks to those who assisted in the writing. Knowing the purpose of the book gives you a good sense of the kinds of questions you will be able to answer with the book and the kinds of things you won't expect to find there. The foreword helps you determine the scope of the book.

  10. Introduction or Instructions for Use -This differs from the preface in that it is about the subject of the book. This is a crucial part of a reference book. It often gives you the instructions you need to understand how the book works. When you pick up a reference book for the first time, read the introduction!

  11. Table of Contents -This gives a list of the chapters or parts of a book. You can tell at a glance what material Is covered in the book and the order in which it is presented. Reading the Table of Contents can give you a quick overview of the book and what it can do for you.

  12. Text - This is the main body of the book. Check for the arrangement of the book. Is it alphabetical? Chronological? Is it arranged by subject? What information is included for each entry?

  13. Appendix-This is supplementary or added material that cannot be easily introduced into the text. It's a good idea to become familiar with the material in the appendix since some of the most helpful information is often found there.

  14. Glossary -This is a list of unusual, technical or obsolete terms with definitions or explanations. It is usually found in the back.

  15. Index - This is an alphabetical list of topics, names, etc. in a book or group of books, with references to pages or item numbers where they occur. An index is to a book what a card catalog is to a library. It lets you locate the needed information. Try to get in the habit of checking indexes. In an encyclopedia, for example, while there may be a major article on Arkansas, by checking the index, you may find relevant information on Arkansas included in articles on other topics.

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This page was last updated on April 29, 2003.