Module 5: Examining and Evaluating Reference Sources Part I Books

A Hands-On Approach to Print Resources

There is no substitute for knowing the reference books, databases, and other electronic resources that your library offers. It is also important to know which resources are available remotely and which are not, as virtual patrons must know what they can and cannot use when working from home. Being able to evaluate these resources for their usefulness is just as important!

Criteria for Evaluating Print Resources

  • Evaluation Criteria for Print Resources
    • Author
    • Date of Publication
    • Edition or Revision
    • Publisher
    • Title
    • Intended Audience
    • Coverage
    • Writing Style

Examining the Print Resource

In order to use a reference tool you must approach it with an open yet critical attitude. Do not take a reference item’s accuracy for granted! Just because it is in the library collection does not mean it is good, correct, or up-to-date. Libraries usually strive to keep only the best materials in their reference collections. Each tool has its strengths and its weaknesses. Only by actually handling the book can you sense its usefulness.

Book Examination

How can you quickly learn to evaluate and use new or unfamiliar titles? By understanding the parts of a book! Below is a detailed checklist, which includes the parts of the book and their definition.

  • 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. Sometimes an agency with a good reputation sells the use of its name and ends up on a lower quality item, so be alert.
  • Title — Titles often can 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.
  • Volume — In a set of several books, each will have its own volume number or letter.
  • Edition — All copies of a book printed from a set of plates makes up an edition. If additional copies are printed from the same plates, the book has been re-issued. 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. As a general rule, using the latest available edition provides better and more updated material, so it’s wise to check the edition you are using.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Publisher’s Name — This is usually found on the title page. Like authors, publishers gain good or bad reputations.
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • 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 instructions you need to understand how the book works. When you pick up a reference book for the first time, read the introduction!
  • Table of Contents — This gives a list of the chapters or parts of a book.
  • 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?
  • Appendix This is supplementary or added material that cannot easily be introduced into the text.
  • Glossary — This is a list of unusual, technical, or obsolete terms with definitions or explanations. It is usually found in the back.
  • 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. Try to get in the habit of checking indexes.

How Will the Resource Be Useful?

When examining a resource that’s new to you or in a new edition or format, consider the following aspects carefully.

  • Purpose: Why was the book written? What is it intended to do? Does it really do that? Use the title, foreword or preface, introduction, table of contents, and an examination of the text itself to help you determine the purpose.
  • Authority: Is the author qualified to write the book? Is the publisher reputable?
  • Scope: What does the book really cover? Does the dictionary cover only words currently in use, or does it contain obsolete words, too? Does the biographical dictionary include only dead people? Only Americans? Other conditions?
  • Audience: Who is the book written for? Is the medical book meant for the lay person or for a doctor? Is the encyclopedia for a child or for an adult?
  • Format: How is the book arranged? Does it have an index? Is it easy to use?

If time permits, it can be beneficial to examine one or two reference books in your collection each day. At the very least, you need to examine each new reference book you receive.

Major Point: There is no substitute for knowing the value of reference sources in your collection. To evaluate and use a resource effectively, you must carefully examine all parts of a print resource.


  1. Use a print almanac or similar ready reference book from the library collection. Print the Book Examination Checklist to carry with you.
    Examine the book and identify each of these parts:
    • Author, Title, Volume, Edition, Series, Place of Publication, Publisher’s Name, Date of Publication
    • Foreword or Preface, Introduction or Instructions for Use, or Table of Contents
    • Text
    • Appendix, Glossary, or Index
    • Special features such as charts, graphs, photos
  2. What would you say are the purpose, authority, scope, audience, and format of the book?
  3. Choose another reference book, one you haven’t used before, and answer questions 1 and 2 for that book.