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How to choose a good reference book
Books on a shelf
This is an almost impossible question to answer, because there are so many different kinds of reference book, and the criteria that apply to, say, a pocket dictionary, may not be relevant to a muti-volume encyclopedia, or an atlas, for example.
So let's stick to some very basic criteria.
- For one thing, reference books start getting out of date the minute they are published, so if you buy a book that is already several years old, you are starting at a disadvantage. That said, some of my own best reference sources are far from new, but the information I get from them is timeless, so this factor is less important with some subjects than others.
- I would also want to know that the book is authoritative, in other words that I can trust the contents. In part, you can judge this from the publisher, because a long-established, reputable publisher will not want their reputation damaged by producing sub-standard reference books. Many reference books, such as encyclopedias, are the work of many hands, and these should be listed in the book. If you know something about the subject in question, you will soon recognise the big names in the field.
- Do not be fooled by acres of space devoted to glossy photos but not much text. These are often referred to as "coffee table books" - great for decorating a room, but maybe not so good at giving you the facts you need for your school or college work!
- Depending on the type of reference book, does it have an index? If so, test it by checking a few references for accuracy and completeness. Are there subjects in the body of the text that are not in the index?
- For what purpose do you need the book? Will it be going back and forth to college with you? You therefore don't want something that is bulky or heavy. Will you be making a lot of use of it over a long period of time? Check, therefore, that it is robust enough not to fall apart in a week!
- One invaluable tip for assessing the worth of a reference book is to ask the advice of a professional reference librarian. These are people who use all sorts of reference sources on a daily basis, and will know from experience which sources are the most reliable and easy to use.
- Likewise, check reviews written by people with no axe to grind. Treat those on Amazon with a little caution. It is very easy for an author or publisher to fix it so that a glowing review appears for their own book - I've done it myself, so I know!
Good luck with your choice!