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Library Reference Resources

Reference image of an openwork plate from a dictionary of furniture design (1874). Courtesy of

Getting Started

What is Reference?

Reference materials are books primarily intended to be occasionally consulted for specific subject matter rather than for consecutive or narrative reading. These books are made up from a vast range of sources and are used to gain either quick facts and information or an overview of a subject. They are also usually non-circulating books, meaning that they cannot be checked out, but must be examined within the library. Tyckoson (2016) succinctly describes the history of reference books by noting that the term "reference" was used because they were books "that one consulted to find references [emphasis added] to other sources" (p. 9).

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases are the most common forms of reference books, although almanacs, directories, and handbooks also qualify as reference material. In fact, anything that one can use for obtaining specific information directly, rather than reading through the entirety of the item, is a reference book.

What is E-Reference?

E-reference, or electronic reference, are reference materials that are available digitally in the online environment. These digital items are compromised of the same principles as their physical counterparts, focusing on quick facts and information or an overview of a subject. One of the most commonly used e-reference materials is Wikipedia, a digital encyclopedia, although other forms of e-reference include online dictionaries, directories, and indexes.

When to Use Reference Books and E-Reference:

Although reference materials are best used at the beginning of any research project or assignment to gather background information, such as theoretical concepts or historical events, they can be used at any time when the need arises. In the words of a reference book about reference books, these resources are designed to be any time "authoritative information is needed, rather than read cover to cover" (Reitz, 2004, p. 600).


Reitz, J. M. (2004). Dictionary for library and information science. Libraries Unlimited.

Tyckoson, D. A. (2016). History and functions of reference services. In L. C. Smith & M. A. Wong, (Eds.), Reference and information services: An introduction (Fifth ed., pp. 3 - 26). Libraries Unlimited

Featured E-Reference Resources

Below are a sample of key reference sources that span the various disciplines offered at Saint Mary's University, from business to the arts to the sciences.

Features searchable articles from McGraw-Hill's Encyclopedia of Science & Technology (10th ed.). Provides fast and accurate access to authoritative articles in all major areas of science and technology.

Offers an industrial directory for companies operating in Canada. This website provides company information and product information. It can be searched by product or company or browsed by product.

Spans the relationships among business, ethics, and society by including more than 800 entries that feature broad coverage of corporate social responsibility, the obligation of companies to various stakeholder groups, the contribution of business to society and culture, and the relationship between organizations and the quality of the environment.

The encyclopedia, comprised of over 1000 individual definitions and chapters, is the most comprehensive and up-to-date resource in the field, integrating the most current terminology, research, theory, and practical applications.

A comprehensive and authoritative encyclopedia-style guide to Canadian history. Featuring significant events, issues, institutions, people and places.

Contains the complete text of the 2nd edition and the Additions volumes, plus new and revised words.

Library Information

Library Hours 

Spring Semester (May 6 - June 22):

Monday - Thursday:     8:30 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Friday:                          8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Saturday:                     Closed

Sunday:                       1 - 7 p.m.

Research Help Hours 

Monday – Friday            10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Saturday & Sunday        Closed

All holidays                     Closed


Outside of these times research assistance is available from Novanet Live Help, an online chat service provided by academic libraries across Nova Scotia. This service is designed to respond to brief questions that can be answered quickly and effectively using online resources.



One-on-one Research Help appointments are available in person and online on weekdays, evenings, and weekends. Book a Research Help appointment online.

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