Humanities: Reference Sources

Although general reference resources are useful in some cases, there are many research projects that require subject-matter specific information sources.

Read Nolen, David S. (January 2014). Publication and language trends of references in Spanish and Latin American literature. College & Research Libraries, 75(1), 34-50.

Read Dougan, Kirstin (2013). Delivering and assessing music reference services. The Reference Librarian, 54(1), 38-54.

Read Sheppard, Beth M. (July, 2012). Resources for the study of the classical world in the new testament era. Theological Librarianship, 5(2), 69-74.

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Go to Reference Sources in the Arts and Humanities. This mindmap provides access to dozens of excellent reference sources by type of reference.


read ipadNot all resources fit into traditional categories. Each discipline has their own quirky sub-disciplines and specialty resources. Before jumping in, it's useful to define some disciplinary specific language and information sources.

Humanities Terms

Although used across fields, there are a few terms that are frequently found in the humanities that are important in accessing reference works.

Music Terms

Arrangement - a reworking of a musical composition that is substantially different from the original. Library users may be seeking an arrangement with a particular musical content or form.

Musical monument - a scholarly edition of music originating from a particular region or country.

Opus - a musical composition or other creative work assigned a number to indicate the order of the composer's output.

Score - a work of printed music. A reader should see notation for all or most parts of a work when examining a score. A work is considered a score if it includes simultaneous notation for two or more voices and/or instruments. Music for only one voice or instrument is not described as a score. Many different types of scores can be found in libraries (Green & Duffy, 2013):

Humanities Reference Starting Points

Reference sources can be found in both open access and subscription-based environments.

Google and Reference Questions

Google is a good place to start seeking answers to reference questions. However, be sure to double-check the results and evaluate the quality of the source.

In some cases, Google Images can be useful. For example, you might be studying religious symbols represented on a flag. If you have a copy of the flag, you can drag it into Google Images for information about the origin of the flag or the symbols.

Or, you might have an image of a work of art. Again, drag it into Google Images and it may be able to identify the origin of the artwork. However, be careful because this approach can backfire. You may end up with an image inspired by the original rather than the original.

Subscription-based Reference Databases

Begin your exploration of reference works at the reference databases. Many of the reference materials listed below can be accessed using the major databases.

The Oxford Reference Online database contains useful reference sources across disciplines.

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Go to Oxford Reference Online. Available through IUPUI.
1) Choose the Reference Type pull-down menu and explore the English and bilingual dictionaries available.
2) Pull-down the Subject menu and explore one of the following areas: Art & Architecture, Classical studies, Linguistics, Literature, Media Studies, Performing arts, Philosophy, or Religion.
3) Notice that some of the electronic references are available and others are restricted. Pick three unlocked or free resources to explore in-depth. Compare their contents and how they are organized.


Map questions can be difficult because the questions may relate to historical issues such as the historical location of an ancient Biblical town. Or, they may be visual such as the boundaries of a country on a map.

Biographical Information

General biography resources can be very useful, but be sure to seek out biography materials within databases geared to your content area interest.




A good place to begin is Contemporary Authors available through IUPUI.

Performing Arts

Philosophy and Religion


Specialized catalogs are produced in many areas of humanities.

A font catalog is a collection of sample specimens of typefaces. Today, these are often found on websites. Adobe Fonts from Adobe Systems is known for their catalog of fonts.

A music catalog contains information about a collection of musical compositions including copyright information.

Catalogs are often found in the area of music such as Music Information Retrieval Systems (MIR Systems). Other examples include Themefinder for standard concert repertory and Hymn Tune Index for hymns.

A thematic catalog provides a list or index of compositions by a single composer. Each composition or movement is identified by the first few notes or words of text known as the incipit.

Other examples of catalogs include:


Concordance, Interpretation, and Commentary

A concordance is an alphabetical listing of all the words occurring in an individual or body of work. In the past, these were commonly used with works by Shakespeare or books like the Bible. Today, electronic search options makes them obsolete, so most concordances have moved online.

According to (Reitz, 2014), a concordance is

"an alphabetically arranged index of the principal words or selected words in a text, or in the works of an author, giving the precise location of each word in the text, with a brief indication of its context. A glossarial concordance includes a brief definition of each term. Concordances are usually devoted to very well known works, such as the Bible, or to the works of major writers (Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc.)."

Particularly well-researched books often are available as concordance, with interpretations and commentary, or with other specialized analysis. The Bible is an example.

The works of Shakespeare is another area where many different types of reference books are available.


A cookbook is a type of reference book containing a collection of recipes and instructions for preparing food. Often organized into categories then alphabetically by recipe name, these books generally contain illustrations, ingredients, measurements, step-by-step instructions, techniques, and advice. These books are often focused on a specific cuisine or category of food.

The culinary arts are an area of humanities that makes use of cookbooks as reference materials.


Regardless of the subject area, some users are seeking criticisms and reviews. These are most common in literature. However they are also common in other areas such as television and film.


Music and Performing Arts

Dictionaries and other Word and Phrase Sources

Rather than general dictionaries, seek out discipline-specific dictionaries for specialized vocabulary.


Language and Literature

For language translation, try Babelfish and Google Translate.


Scenario Stumper
A friend is traveling in Nigeria, Africa. In a recent letter he said he'd acquired an ajigo, is learning to play it, and wants to know if he should bring it back to the United States. I'm a music teacher and am a little embarrassed that I don't know anything about this instrument. I'm also wondering why he's so concerned about transporting it.
A quick search of Google yielded no results. However, there's an article in the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments at Oxford Music Online.
The Bottom Line... an ajigo is a 60 cm tall and 35 cm in diameter kettledrum. The reason he's concerned about bringing it back is that they're "believed to be sacred, it is used solely by members of the ichicha society in ceremonial performance."

Philosophy and Religion

Performing Arts

Data Sources

Although data and statistics sources are less likely to be used in humanities than other areas, the ARDA: Association of Religion Data Archives is a good source for data about religion.


Directories are common in the humanities, particularly in the area of the visual and performing arts.





In the databases, browse by subject, general reference, and encyclopedias. In addition to encyclopedia, chronologies and other closely associated reference types are included.


Foreign Language Encyclopedia

Language and Literature




Performing Arts

try itTry It!
Browse The Encyclopedia of African Religion by Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama from SAGE Knowledge through IUPUI. You'll have only limited access, but you'll get the idea. How does this book reflect the characteristics of an encyclopedia? In what situations would an encyclopedia this this work well in addressing a reference question?

Handbooks, Guides, and Manuals

Handbooks, guides, and manuals are all found in the humanities. Many handbooks are available as ebooks through IUPUI's collection. These can be useful in providing information not found in general Google searches.

Style Guides

Style guides are a type of manual or guide that are used throughout the humanities. They are common when discussing the styles for citations in written work.


Philosophy and Religion


Yearbooks are produced in many areas. In music, it's a work issued annually that contains an overview of scholarly contributions for a limited area of focus.

Performing Arts

Philosophy and Religion


Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma (2012). Reference and Information Services: An Introduction (3rd Edition). Available through IUPUI.

Reitz, Joan M. (2014). Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science. Libraries Unlimited. Available: http://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_a.aspx.

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