Question: What value has a reference book? Why, for example, consult a scholarly history encyclopedia?
Answer: Encyclopedias are two steps removed from the primary source evidence, that is from the letters, diaries, oral histories, and other first-hand accounts of history. Encyclopedias are instead based on secondary sources. For that reason, encyclopedias and other reference works belong to a class of information often referred to as tertiary sources by librarians.
- Reference works help researchers to contextualize their topics, situating the secondary literature within historiographical debates. Context is critical, not least because researchers cannot elicit relevant search results from library databases such as JSTOR if they do not know which keywords (or search terms) to employ.
- Obtain from encyclopedias background information about your historical topic. Easily track down additional sources for further reading. Browse an encyclopedia for help choosing and/or refining your research topic. In short, the Gitenstein Library reference works listed on this page are a great way to begin any history-related research project.