Reference sources provide immediate factual information or refer users to where that information will be found. Reference sources may be general is scope, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, or they may be subject specific, such as The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. General reference sources provide information about all subject areas, whereas subject specific reference sources provide information about that particular subject area.
A reference source is an ideal place to begin a research assignment, especially when one has no knowledge of the topic. Here one will find a panoramic view of the topic as well as its different parts, and knowing its different parts is essential before moving on to the much more focused academic journal.
Historically, the library reference collection consisted of catalogs, indexes, bibliographies, and other finding aides. These resources were used primarily by librarians and did not leave the library. Eventually dictionaries, almanacs, handbooks and encyclopedias became part of the non-lending collection. Today reference collections are increasingly in digital format and can be accessed by all patrons with a computer and an Internet connection.