Reference resources

Student looking at Topic Explorer — a digital reference resource

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This guide helps school library teams assess their reference collection by exploring its purpose, content, and accessibility for all library users.

The role of your reference collection

Your library's reference collection supports students throughout their research or inquiry learning cycle.

Reference resources reflect the information needs of your learners and help students to:

  • find on-the-spot answers to straightforward questions
  • develop an overview of a topic by introducing concepts and terms specific to a topic
  • find information that is not covered elsewhere in the library’s collection.

Supporting inquiry learning

Your collection will usually include:

  • digital resources that are accessible online or through your library catalogue
  • a print reference collection that students can use whenever your library is open.
  • Developing criteria for selecting reference resources

    When you choose resources for your collection, having criteria that guide your decisions is helpful. To get the best use from your reference resources, they need to be:

    • authoritative, up-to-date, concise
    • relevant to the curriculum with strong New Zealand content where appropriate
    • easy to use and suitable for a range of reading and learning abilities.

    General criteria

    You could assess the overall quality of a reference resource by checking that:

    • it's easy to find information within it
    • the scope and presentation are suitable for your students
    • it has comprehensive indexing and cross-referencing, including digital links
    • it's updated often and thoroughly
    • you can get access to back issues and archives where appropriate
    • it will remain relevant and useable for a reasonable time — for example check how durable a print reference is and whether its shape and size are suitable for your readers.

    Selecting and purchasing resources

    Criteria for digital reference resources

    When you're selecting a digital resource, you also need to consider if it:

    • has authentication requirements — or other user requirements that might make it difficult for students to access it
    • is compatible across a range of browsers, platforms and devices, and can be used by many users simultaneously
    • includes a powerful, flexible search function
    • offers options for printing, downloading, citing and sharing information
    • can be customised or includes assistive technology for students with sight or hearing impairments
    • is a subscription service or has other support costs
    • offers user training and support and whether it's online, remote or face-to-face.

    Your library's digital collection

    Key issues for e-resource collection development — a guide for libraries published by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), 2012

    Choosing apps

    The word 'app' is an abbreviation for 'application'. An app is a piece of software that runs on your computer or mobile device. The term app usually refers to applications designed for mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. But it can refer to virtually any type of software program running on the internet, a computer or mobile device.

    Apps can be an important part of a digital reference collection.

    When you're evaluating an app, look for:

    • an interface that's easy for your students to navigate
    • settings that can be customised, for example difficulty levels or accessibility options, such as font size or narration speed
    • the variety of devices it can be used on
    • how it encourages creative thinking and problem-solving, for example through interactive design.

    Digital content: finding, evaluating, using, and creating it

  • Developing criteria for selecting reference resources

    When you choose resources for your collection, having criteria that guide your decisions is helpful. To get the best use from your reference resources, they need to be:

    • authoritative, up-to-date, concise
    • relevant to the curriculum with strong New Zealand content where appropriate
    • easy to use and suitable for a range of reading and learning abilities.

    General criteria

    You could assess the overall quality of a reference resource by checking that:

    • it's easy to find information within it
    • the scope and presentation are suitable for your students
    • it has comprehensive indexing and cross-referencing, including digital links
    • it's updated often and thoroughly
    • you can get access to back issues and archives where appropriate
    • it will remain relevant and useable for a reasonable time — for example check how durable a print reference is and whether its shape and size are suitable for your readers.

    Selecting and purchasing resources

    Criteria for digital reference resources

    When you're selecting a digital resource, you also need to consider if it:

    • has authentication requirements — or other user requirements that might make it difficult for students to access it
    • is compatible across a range of browsers, platforms and devices, and can be used by many users simultaneously
    • includes a powerful, flexible search function
    • offers options for printing, downloading, citing and sharing information
    • can be customised or includes assistive technology for students with sight or hearing impairments
    • is a subscription service or has other support costs
    • offers user training and support and whether it's online, remote or face-to-face.

    Your library's digital collection

    Key issues for e-resource collection development — a guide for libraries published by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), 2012

    Choosing apps

    The word 'app' is an abbreviation for 'application'. An app is a piece of software that runs on your computer or mobile device. The term app usually refers to applications designed for mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. But it can refer to virtually any type of software program running on the internet, a computer or mobile device.

    Apps can be an important part of a digital reference collection.

    When you're evaluating an app, look for:

    • an interface that's easy for your students to navigate
    • settings that can be customised, for example difficulty levels or accessibility options, such as font size or narration speed
    • the variety of devices it can be used on
    • how it encourages creative thinking and problem-solving, for example through interactive design.

    Digital content: finding, evaluating, using, and creating it

  • What makes up a reference collection

    A core reference collection of print and digital resources for all levels of schooling may include:

    • a general encyclopedia such as Britannica School
    • a New Zealand encyclopedia, for example Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand which is available in English and te reo Māori
    • websites that provide quick, current information, such as breaking news, weather (for example the MetService website) or seismological data
    • dictionaries and thesauri covering languages taught in your school or used by members of your school community, including English, Māori and Pasifika dictionaries
    • atlases, for example Google Earth and Google Maps, or Britannica School which includes maps
    • local information such as street maps, telephone directories and community directories
    • a range of single-topic resources suitable for your students.

    EPIC guide — you can access many reference resources including Britannica School for primary, intermediate and secondary schools and the Oxford English Dictionary from EPIC.

  • What makes up a reference collection

    A core reference collection of print and digital resources for all levels of schooling may include:

    • a general encyclopedia such as Britannica School
    • a New Zealand encyclopedia, for example Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand which is available in English and te reo Māori
    • websites that provide quick, current information, such as breaking news, weather (for example the MetService website) or seismological data
    • dictionaries and thesauri covering languages taught in your school or used by members of your school community, including English, Māori and Pasifika dictionaries
    • atlases, for example Google Earth and Google Maps, or Britannica School which includes maps
    • local information such as street maps, telephone directories and community directories
    • a range of single-topic resources suitable for your students.

    EPIC guide — you can access many reference resources including Britannica School for primary, intermediate and secondary schools and the Oxford English Dictionary from EPIC.

  • Finding reference resources

    There's a wide range of online resources that have been developed for educational purposes.

    What other libraries offer

    Your local library and the National Library, including Services to Schools, offers access to a broad range of reference material. Promote these to your students and integrate them into your school library's online presence.

    Digital resources and guides — all kinds of resources provided by the National Library including Topic Explorer, Papers Past, DigitalNZ, the EPIC collection of databases and more.

    EPIC databases

    The EPIC collection of databases contains digital resources for use at school and home by students and staff. The databases, many of which are updated daily, cover a wide range of curriculum topics, from the arts, biographies, English, geography, health, history, languages and science to current events and more.

    EPIC includes New Zealand content and provides access to a rich range of full-text magazines and newspapers, along with biographies, an encyclopedia and other reference works, books, images, sound and video clips.

    EPIC guide

    Apps for schools

    Apple Education App store — apps covering a wide range of subjects for every level and learning style for iPad and other Apple devices

    Google Play education apps — a library of apps for android devices

    Reviews of reference resources

    SLJ reference reviews — the School Library Journal reviews new reference resources

    Resources specific to primary and intermediate schools

    In addition to a core collection, primary or intermediate school reference collections could include:

    • a homework help site, such as the National Library's AnyQuestions
    • web portals, such as Kids InfoBits which can be accessed via EPIC.

    AnyQuestions guide

    WickED themes gallery — run by the NZ Ministry of Education, this website for 7 to 12 year-olds offers engaging curriculum-based learning activities in English and te reo Māori

    Resources specific to secondary schools

    All resources included in the collection of EPIC databases are suitable for secondary schools.

    There are other resources suitable for a secondary school reference collection.

    International information

    Compare countries — a section of Britannica School which can be accessed via EPIC

    Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) factbook — a website and app that offers a wide range of statistics about its member countries and other countries

    Wolfram Alpha — a website and app that houses a curated collection of data on many subjects that aims to provide definitive answers to factual queries

    Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook — provides world information about history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation and the military

    New Zealand information

    Your collection could include the a range of information specific to New Zealand, including:

    • tikanga Māori — place names, whakataukī (proverbs), marae protocols
    • the New Zealand Official Yearbook — available in print or a searchable digital version which has a complete archive from 1893
    • flora and fauna guides — you might want to make these available for loan, both for field trips and general usage
    • appropriate New Zealand directories, such as Jobs galore or the Jobs database.

    The New Zealand Official Yearbook

    Jobs galore — a reference book of jobs in New Zealand compiled by Careers NZ

    Jobs database — helps students discover career possibilities and explore the job market

  • Finding reference resources

    There's a wide range of online resources that have been developed for educational purposes.

    What other libraries offer

    Your local library and the National Library, including Services to Schools, offers access to a broad range of reference material. Promote these to your students and integrate them into your school library's online presence.

    Digital resources and guides — all kinds of resources provided by the National Library including Topic Explorer, Papers Past, DigitalNZ, the EPIC collection of databases and more.

    EPIC databases

    The EPIC collection of databases contains digital resources for use at school and home by students and staff. The databases, many of which are updated daily, cover a wide range of curriculum topics, from the arts, biographies, English, geography, health, history, languages and science to current events and more.

    EPIC includes New Zealand content and provides access to a rich range of full-text magazines and newspapers, along with biographies, an encyclopedia and other reference works, books, images, sound and video clips.

    EPIC guide

    Apps for schools

    Apple Education App store — apps covering a wide range of subjects for every level and learning style for iPad and other Apple devices

    Google Play education apps — a library of apps for android devices

    Reviews of reference resources

    SLJ reference reviews — the School Library Journal reviews new reference resources

    Resources specific to primary and intermediate schools

    In addition to a core collection, primary or intermediate school reference collections could include:

    • a homework help site, such as the National Library's AnyQuestions
    • web portals, such as Kids InfoBits which can be accessed via EPIC.

    AnyQuestions guide

    WickED themes gallery — run by the NZ Ministry of Education, this website for 7 to 12 year-olds offers engaging curriculum-based learning activities in English and te reo Māori

    Resources specific to secondary schools

    All resources included in the collection of EPIC databases are suitable for secondary schools.

    There are other resources suitable for a secondary school reference collection.

    International information

    Compare countries — a section of Britannica School which can be accessed via EPIC

    Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) factbook — a website and app that offers a wide range of statistics about its member countries and other countries

    Wolfram Alpha — a website and app that houses a curated collection of data on many subjects that aims to provide definitive answers to factual queries

    Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook — provides world information about history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation and the military

    New Zealand information

    Your collection could include the a range of information specific to New Zealand, including:

    • tikanga Māori — place names, whakataukī (proverbs), marae protocols
    • the New Zealand Official Yearbook — available in print or a searchable digital version which has a complete archive from 1893
    • flora and fauna guides — you might want to make these available for loan, both for field trips and general usage
    • appropriate New Zealand directories, such as Jobs galore or the Jobs database.

    The New Zealand Official Yearbook

    Jobs galore — a reference book of jobs in New Zealand compiled by Careers NZ

    Jobs database — helps students discover career possibilities and explore the job market

  • Selecting specific types of reference resources

    Dictionaries and thesauri

    There are many free online dictionaries and thesauri. You could use the following criteria to help you choose ones that suit your collection. They should offer:

    • a clear layout, for example different meanings for words are numbered and easy to follow
    • current language styles, including new words and changes in idiom
    • unbiased information — look up political and social terms to check this
    • differences in spelling, for example disk and disc, or program and programme
    • etymology and pronunciation
    • audio to help with pronunciation.

    When choosing a thesaurus make sure it uses headwords as well as synonyms, alternative words, slang and antonyms.

    Maps and atlases

    Use the following criteria to help you choose maps and atlases. They'll need to have:

    • adequate coverage of different geographical and political regions, including New Zealand
    • a range of place names suitable for intended users
    • maps organised in a logical way including an overview of the world so that students can see countries in relation to each other
    • well-contrasted colours applied to geological features and symbols so they're easy to read
    • maps labelled clearly taking into account font, style, size, colour and contrast.

    Digital maps and atlases have an advantage in that they can be continually updated. If you decide to have a print atlas, look for:

    • publication date — print atlases are more likely to go out-of-date
    • sources and dates for any statistical information
    • names of cities and countries — check some that are in the news to see if they're correct
    • a full alphabetical index that references the exact page, map, latitude and longitude and grid information
    • an index with a good font size and spacing that's easy to read.

    Yearbooks, almanacs and directories

    Current statistical information found in yearbooks and directories is often freely available online. Before buying these resources, you'll need to decide whether the use they'll get justifies the cost.

    Single-topic reference resources

    Several publishers produce single volume reference works on a variety of subjects which are ideal for school libraries. Many are also available as thematic apps such as those available for purchase from Britannica. These resources include:

    • companions to music, literature and art
    • pocket books of statistics
    • handbooks on wildlife and science topics
    • books about interesting facts and outstanding achievements.
  • Selecting specific types of reference resources

    Dictionaries and thesauri

    There are many free online dictionaries and thesauri. You could use the following criteria to help you choose ones that suit your collection. They should offer:

    • a clear layout, for example different meanings for words are numbered and easy to follow
    • current language styles, including new words and changes in idiom
    • unbiased information — look up political and social terms to check this
    • differences in spelling, for example disk and disc, or program and programme
    • etymology and pronunciation
    • audio to help with pronunciation.

    When choosing a thesaurus make sure it uses headwords as well as synonyms, alternative words, slang and antonyms.

    Maps and atlases

    Use the following criteria to help you choose maps and atlases. They'll need to have:

    • adequate coverage of different geographical and political regions, including New Zealand
    • a range of place names suitable for intended users
    • maps organised in a logical way including an overview of the world so that students can see countries in relation to each other
    • well-contrasted colours applied to geological features and symbols so they're easy to read
    • maps labelled clearly taking into account font, style, size, colour and contrast.

    Digital maps and atlases have an advantage in that they can be continually updated. If you decide to have a print atlas, look for:

    • publication date — print atlases are more likely to go out-of-date
    • sources and dates for any statistical information
    • names of cities and countries — check some that are in the news to see if they're correct
    • a full alphabetical index that references the exact page, map, latitude and longitude and grid information
    • an index with a good font size and spacing that's easy to read.

    Yearbooks, almanacs and directories

    Current statistical information found in yearbooks and directories is often freely available online. Before buying these resources, you'll need to decide whether the use they'll get justifies the cost.

    Single-topic reference resources

    Several publishers produce single volume reference works on a variety of subjects which are ideal for school libraries. Many are also available as thematic apps such as those available for purchase from Britannica. These resources include:

    • companions to music, literature and art
    • pocket books of statistics
    • handbooks on wildlife and science topics
    • books about interesting facts and outstanding achievements.
  • Providing access to your online reference collection

    The more students rely on the internet, the more digital resources will become a significant part of your collection. Catalogue and process your digital reference resources in the same way as other library materials.

    Cataloguing your library collection — includes cataloguing online resources and curated content

    You can maximise access to your online reference collection by:

    • collaborating with teachers to share resources through your school's learning management system
    • deploying devices loaded with selected reference resources and apps in both the library and classrooms
    • promoting the range of digital reference resources to your community with posters, bookmarks or flyers
    • sharing news about your collection through the library's online presence
    • providing guidance about how to access the collection as part of information literacy instruction.

    Shelving print reference resources

    Traditionally print reference collections have been placed in a defined area of the library. However, you may want to try interfiling or mixing reference materials with your general collection. For example you could shelve your dictionaries with other books about languages.

    If possible, place your print reference collection near a photocopier and printer, and display current copyright information and obligations near the photocopier.

    Assessing and weeding your reference collection

    When you assess and weed your collections, include reference resources, both print and digital.

    For digital resources review subscriptions and access, and check that URLs are working.

    Assessing your school library collection

    Weeding your school library collection

  • Providing access to your online reference collection

    The more students rely on the internet, the more digital resources will become a significant part of your collection. Catalogue and process your digital reference resources in the same way as other library materials.

    Cataloguing your library collection — includes cataloguing online resources and curated content

    You can maximise access to your online reference collection by:

    • collaborating with teachers to share resources through your school's learning management system
    • deploying devices loaded with selected reference resources and apps in both the library and classrooms
    • promoting the range of digital reference resources to your community with posters, bookmarks or flyers
    • sharing news about your collection through the library's online presence
    • providing guidance about how to access the collection as part of information literacy instruction.

    Shelving print reference resources

    Traditionally print reference collections have been placed in a defined area of the library. However, you may want to try interfiling or mixing reference materials with your general collection. For example you could shelve your dictionaries with other books about languages.

    If possible, place your print reference collection near a photocopier and printer, and display current copyright information and obligations near the photocopier.

    Assessing and weeding your reference collection

    When you assess and weed your collections, include reference resources, both print and digital.

    For digital resources review subscriptions and access, and check that URLs are working.

    Assessing your school library collection

    Weeding your school library collection