Skip to main content

Mathematics: Reference Sources

A starting point for students researching mathematics at Wardman Library, Whittier College.

What is a Reference Source?

"Reference works" is an overall term for resources that take an introductory approach to a particular subject and are meant to be consulted for definite items of information (rather than being read consecutively like you would read a novel). These generally include:

  • encyclopedias
  • introductory texts
  • dictionaries
  • atlases
  • almanacs
  • handbooks
  • biographical sources
  • indexes

Reference works are usually written by scholars and contain the essential information you ought to know before beginning more detailed research. Note: The term "reference works" is also sometimes used to refer to items that cannot be checked out from the library.

For more information, see our Intro to Library Research guide.

How to Use an Online Reference Source

Reference resources are organized in a way that aids searching (alphabetically, chronologically, etc).  Most include an index which will direct you to the appropriate section.  Tips for searching:

  1. Decide on your search terms
  2. Try searching with them
  3. If not satisfied with the results, try searching a synonym or related idea

Things to watch out for:

  • Is the computer searching only the title/header of the entries or the full-text of the information?  You will get more results, but more of them will be irrelevant if you are searching the full-text.
  • Are you searching for a proper noun (name, place,...)?  Make sure that the spelling is correct and try variations if it originated in a foreign language.
  • Searching for something by date?  This is trickier than it sounds.  If possible, search for an event name or topic rather than a date, e.g. civil rights movement or hippies or flower children rather than 1960s.

Suggested Reference Books

The books listed below are especially useful for acquiring background information or reading up on the history of your topic.  They can also be helpful in providing key words that you will use when searching electronic databases for journal articles.You can find additional print books by searching the library catalog. Online reference material can be accessed through GVRL and Oxford Reference.

In addition to the works below, check out the books published under Cambridge Univ. Press's Encyclopedia of Mathematics and its Applications series.

Suggested Online Resources