When looking for basic information on a subject, your library's reference section is an excellent place to start. While you might think of the reference section as just containing dictionaries and encyclopedias, each library provides access to a wide variety of other reference tools you can use in your research. If there is a specific sort of reference source you are looking for, don't forget to ask your librarian.
Dictionaries and Thesauruses
When you think of dictionaries, the first thing that may come to mind are the Oxford English or Merriam-Webster dictionaries, books that simply contain the definitions of words. However, reference sections also include historical and etymological dictionaries that provide information about the origins of words, as well as foreign-language dictionaries that allow you to translate between different languages. You might also find dictionaries that define the terms used in a specific academic field, such as economics or sociology.
A reference section will also contain thesauruses. A thesaurus lets you look up a word and find its synonyms -- words with the same or similar meanings. A thesaurus can be a useful tool if you are writing on a specific topic and find you repeat one or two words too frequently.
Encyclopedias and Almanacs
While today most encyclopedias are no longer printed and have moved online, you can still find text copies at libraries. An encyclopedia is a multi-volume work that provides lengthy articles based on research. General encyclopedias, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, cover a wide variety of topics, from science and history to language and culture. You can also find subject-specific encyclopedias, such as The Encyclopedia of Religion, that focus all their articles within a specific field.
An almanac is typically published annually, and contains up-to-date statistics and facts from the most recent year. An almanac is a useful source if you want to use the most current information on a topic in your research.
Atlases, Gazeteers, Manuals and Handbooks
An atlas is a book containing maps. It may include maps from all over the world or may focus on a specific area, such as Western Europe. An atlas may also be used to show historical maps from a specific time period, such as World War II. A gazetteer is another sort of geographical reference that uses definitions, rather than maps, to describe different regions.
Manuals are how-to guides that show you the operation of tools and machines, or describe how to do certain tasks. A camping manual, for instance, might show you how to pitch a tent and light a fire. Handbooks are used to identify and provide information about different members of a specific category. For example, one of the Audubon Society's field guides might include pictures of birds, maps of their habitats and descriptions of their behavior.
Directories and Indexes
A library can be a useful place to find contact information for an individual or organization. For instance, you can find directories of public information, such as ZIP codes and postal information, in the reference section. Your library will likely also have local directories that provide information about businesses and organizations in your area.
If you're looking for scholarly articles on a specific topic, you can look in your library's indexes. These books provide references and brief descriptions of the articles and art contained in periodical publications, which can be useful if you're trying to track down a piece of information from a large catalog, but don't know where to look.