Social Science: Reference Sources

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

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Social Studies 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.

flagIn some cases, Google Images can be useful. For example, you might be studying connection between culture and country flags. 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.

You may be able to identify an historical photos using Google Images. Drag the image into the Google Images search bar. Many times these images are copied from one website to another. Work on tracing back to the original website.

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.

Try It!
Go to Oxford Reference Online. Available through IUPUI.
1) Pull-down the Subject menu and explore one of the following areas: Archaeology, Classical studies, History, Law, Name studies, Social sciences, and Society and culture.
2) 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.


Almanacs are common in many areas of social science.


Atlas are very useful in the area of history. They're also common in area and cultural studies. Census and other types of government data are often visualized using maps.

Historical Atlas

Thematic Maps

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.

Print resources continue to remain important in genealogical research in focused areas such as locating a herald or accessing a family history. However, these books are increasingly being digitized so be sure to check places like Google Books and HathiTrust to see if the book is available online.

Cultural and Ethnic Focus

Political Science


Data and Statistics Sources

Data and statistics information sources are particularly useful in the social sciences.

Open Access

Also check out LibGuide that link to data and statistics sites:

Subscription-based Data

try itTry It!
Go to DemographicsNow from Gale available through IUPUI. Notice the many ways that data can be displayed.
Then, compare and contast the different data sources above.
Which sources would be best for a particular research question? Why?

Dictionaries and other Word and Phrase Sources

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


Directories are particularly common in the areas of law, political science, and social work.


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

Sage Reference. Available through IUPUI.

try itTry It!
Browse and compare three difference encyclopedia. Compare and contrast the organization and contents. How do these electronic books reflect the characteristics of an encyclopedia? In what situations would an encyclopedia 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.

Sage Reference provides access to a wide range of reference handbooks. Available through IUPUI.

try itTry It!
Skim Reece, Gwendolyn J. (201). Chapter 20: Shamanism. In J. Birx, 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. You can also read Shamanism through Sage Reference.

Then, compare the chapter in this handbook to a general Google search. How are your findings alike and different? How can handbooks be useful in working with library users?

ScienceDirect provides access to reference handbooks. Available through IUPUI.


Legal Cases

One reference type specific to social science is the area of legal cases. They can be found in many open access and subscription-based databases.


Yearbooks are produced in many areas. Many countries and governments publish yearbooks.

Other Reference Types

An armorial is a book containing a collection of illustrations representing coat of arms or other heraldry. Generally, the illustrations are accompanied by an explanation including the name of the person or family bearing the arms.


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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