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How Tos

Learn how to research at the library and on the Web.

What are reference sources?

What Are Reference Sources?

Reference sources are sources such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, manuals, handbooks, or atlases that are meant to be referred to for background information about a topic. Instead of reading them all the way through, usually you read a small section of them to find information. 

Reference sources, such as encyclopedias, are great sources for background reading because they can provide you with an overview of your topic. Because they provide general information, they aren't meant to be used as sources in your research papers (you will find more in-depth, current information to use for your research papers from sources such as academic articles, books, and credible websites). Instead, reference sources are meant to help you learn about your topic so that you can learn what is important or interesting about it and then decide how to focus your research question. You can often learn key vocabulary, issues, and subtopics from reading reference sources.

An example of a reference source is this encyclopedia entry entitled "American Indian Languages" from Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia

American Indian languages. (2018). In Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. World Book, Inc.,url,uid,cookie&db=funk&AN=am084100&site=ehost-live 

How to Find Reference Sources at the Library

Quick Steps to Find Reference Sources

1. Enter your simple search terms in the Library Search Box and click Search.

Pacific University Libraries Search Box


2. Filter your search results to only show you reference sources by clicking Show More under the Resource Type filter category. Click the boxes next to Reference Works and Reference Entries and click Apply Filters.

Check the boxes next to Reference Entries and Reference Works under Resource Type and click Apply Filters


3.  Now your search results should only include entire reference books such as encyclopedias or single entries in reference works, such as encyclopedia entries or other reference book chapters or sections. 

Search results showing only reference works or reference entries after resource type filters were applied


4. Watch the video above for more information and additional ways to find reference sources or ask a librarian for assistance! 

Search Terms for Reference Sources

  • When looking for reference works on a specific subject, use very simple keywords. Examples: social psychologysolar system origin.
    • The keyword phrase women's rights would bring more results than women's rights in the 19th century in Oregon.
  • Use as few words as possible to sum up your general topic. If you do not get many search results, reduce the number of words you are using in your search terms.
  • Do NOT write sentences or ask questions (natural language) as you would in Google.


If I were searching for reference sources about net neutrality, I could try some of the following search terms:

  • net neutrality
  • internet neutrality
  • open internet

How to Access Resources from Off Campus

Having Trouble Accessing a Library Resource?

If you run into trouble accessing any library resource such as an ebook, article, or any of the library's databases, here are some tips to help you troubleshoot access. Please always feel free to ask us for help by chat, phone, email, or in-person.