Chapter 2. Guides to Reference Works

Table of Contents

Guides to reference works identify and (in the better ones) evaluate the handbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies of bibliographies, national bibliographies, surveys of research, bibliographic databases, review indexes, and other resources—print and electronic—important to research within a discipline. They are the essential first sources a scholar consults when planning how to approach a research problem.

General Guides


Guide to Reference. Bob Kieft, gen. ed. 12th ed. American Library Association. Amer. Lib. Assn., 2008. 5 Oct. 2012. <>. Updated regularly. Former title: Guide to Reference Books.

A selective guide to general and specialized reference works that focuses on the “best reference sources.” The principal criterion determining inclusion is “usefulness”; for an admirably detailed explanation of selection criteria, see Entries are organized by six extensively classified sections: general works; humanities; social and behavioral sciences; history and area studies; science, technology, and medicine; and interdisciplinary fields (including communication and media studies, cultural studies, and gender studies). Each section includes an “Editor’s Guide.” Entries can be browsed by subfield. Advanced Search allows keyword searching of the entire text or by keyword(s) in the title, author, annotation, and publisher fields. Searches can be limited by subfield, date, and LC and Dewey classification range. In both Browse and Advanced Search, results can be sorted in ascending order by author, date, or title and can be marked for addition to a public or private list, printing, e-mailing, or exporting. Entries consist of a citation, annotation, and links to related works or subfields; a few cite reviews. In addition, users can add a public or private note to a record and find public lists that include it. Although descriptions are now more evaluative than those in previous editions (the level of evaluation is not uniform across sections), many annotations still rely too uncritically on quotations from prefatory matter to describe scope or purpose, and too few compare similar works; many annotations ignore important limitations or weaknesses or fail to link related records. More clearly focused on resources for academic libraries, the new edition omits many works of dubious value that cluttered the pages of the eleventh edition and improves coverage of foreign language titles, but it also overlooks important works (e.g., Dictionary of Old English [M1690]). Despite its shortcomings, Guide to Reference remains useful to literature scholars for its general coverage of reference works essential to research in areas related to literature. Although claiming to be “updated on an ongoing basis,” few subfields include works that appeared after 2008. Users can also consult “Selected Reference Books” in various issues of College and Research Libraries. Since the new Guide emphasizes recently published works, the earlier print editions remain useful. For the genesis and publishing history of Guide to Reference Books (along with a selective bibliography of studies and reviews), see Stuart W. Miller, “‘Monument’: Guide to Reference Books,” Distinguished Classics of Reference Publishing, ed. James Rettig (Phoenix: Oryx, 1992) 129–37.

Complemented by The New Walford Guide to Reference Resources (B65). Although now dated, Louise-Noëlle Malclès, Les sources du travail bibliographique, 3 vols. in 4 (Genève: Droz, 1950–58), is an occasionally useful supplement to Guide to Reference because of its extensive coverage of Continental publications and older works. More current but less thorough is Marie-Hélène Prévoteau and Jean-Claude Utard, Manuel de bibliographie générale, new ed., Collection bibliothèques (Paris: Cercle de la Librairie, 2005; 524 pp.). Researchers should ignore Bowker’s Best Reference Books: Arranged by LC Classification Number, 3 vols. (New Providence: Best Books–Bowker, 2005) and Bowker’s Best Reference Books: Arranged by Subject Heading, 2 vols. (2005), which offer uncritical lists that include in the literature section or under literature subject headings a substantial number of works that are not reference books. For timely notices of new and revised reference books, see American Reference Books Annual (K745) and Choice (K750).


The New Walford Guide to Reference Resources (TNW). Ed. Ray Lester. 3 vols. London: Facet, 2005– . Z1035.1.W33 001′.02.

  • Vol. 1: Science, Technology, and Medicine. 2005. 827 pp.

  • Vol. 2: Social Sciences. 2008. 699 pp.

  • Vol. 3: Walford’s Guide to Reference Material: Generalia, Language and Literature, the Arts. Ed. Anthony Chalcraft, Ray Prytherch, and Stephen Willis. 7th ed. London: Lib. Assn., 1998. 1,186 pp. (A new edition—The Arts: Visual Arts, Music, Language, and Literature, ed. Peter Chapman and Helen Edwards—is scheduled for 2014.)

The British counterpart to Guide to Reference (B60), but more international and comprehensive in coverage. Entries in vol. 3 are organized by the Universal Decimal Classification system; those in New Walford are organized by “subject parts, subject groupings and subject fields.” Annotations in vols. 1 and 3 are sometimes evaluative and helpfully identify related works, especially supplements or titles that have been superseded; annotations in vol. 2 seldom refer to other works or reviews. Three indexes in vol. 3: authors and titles, subjects, electronic resources; two in vols. 1–2: topics (i.e., subjects) and authors and titles. Vol. 3, the one of most interest to literary researchers, is judicious in its selection and evaluation of works, is current through early 1998, and has been carefully proofread (unlike the volume’s fourth edition). Unfortunately, however, many works that exhibit major shortcomings are accompanied by only a brief descriptive comment.

Although New Walford and Guide to Reference are ultimately complementary works, Guide to Reference is more current. The Literary Research Guide offers more current coverage of sources for the study of language and literature, but both Guide to Reference and New Walford are essential guides to reference sources necessary to research in related areas.