The following criteria are traditionally used to evaluate a reference work.
Authority: The publisher’s reputation is a measure of quality. Editors, advisors, consultants and contributors, and their qualifications and status, are also important.
Purpose: Why was the work produced and who is the intended client group?
Scope: Is the publication comprehensive or selective? Is it intended for specialists or the popular market?
Bias: Some reference work s have an emphasis on information of interest to the country in which they are published.
Arrangement/Index/Navigation: Ease of use is vital. Printed works need a comprehensive and straightforward index, with references. Electronic works must be easy to navigate, finding what you want quickly and without getting lost.
Production: Printed reference works are often large and expensive publications, with attention to de sign, illustrations and maps, and binding. Similarly electronic works emphasize design and special features.
Accuracy and recency of information: Accuracy is most important. How up-to-date is the information? Large reference sources take years to compile: how and how often is the work updated? Check the recency of bibliographies. Test a work by looking up a topic you know well.
Examining reference works
To familiarize yourself with a reference work you need to examine it closely, and think about the kinds of questions it may answer.
Printed reference works
Bibliographic details and authority of publication: First study the title page to determine the type of work and its scope, as indicated in the title, the author‘s or editor’s name and background (qualifications, positions held, titles of earlier works), the publisher and the date of publication.
Purpose and special features: Read the preface or introduction for further information about the scope, special features, limitations if any, and comparison with other publications on the subject.
Quality of information and ease of use: Study the contents to determine its arrangement, the types of entries, use of cross references, any supplementary lists, indexes and the quality and kind of articles. Are they popular or technical, signed or unsigned, impartial or biased? Are bibliographical references included?
Supplementary or complete?: Compare the publication with earlier editions. Does this edition supersede earlier editions, or is it a supplement to earlier editions?
You will need to spend some time looking at reference works. There is a huge range of works, which answer all kinds of questions, and you can only become sufficiently familiar with them by exploring and using them.
You can find out a great deal about a work by reading the introductory material. This usually explains the purpose, the structure of the whole work and of each entry, the scope, and other relevant details.
Electronic reference works
Bibliographical de tails and authority of publication: Scan the first screen and click on any links to information such as ‘About us’ or ‘About this product/site’. Look for clues about the type of work, its purpose and scope, including the title, the author or editor’s name and background (qualifications, positions held, titles of earlier works), the publisher and date of publication or last update of the site.
Ease of use: Use links and navigation buttons to move around. Explore any menus, and try to get an overview of the arrangement – e.g., are there broad subject groupings, can you browse as well as search for specific topics? Are there appropriate links to related topics? Investigate any special features – e.g., clicking a word to hear it pronounced. Do the features add to the value of the information, or are they just “bells and whistles”? Do they slow down the retrieval of information (especially on the Web)?
Quality of information: Test the content with some standard enquiries, and compare the results. Search for recent information you are familiar with, and see how up-to-date the answers are. Are the articles general or technical, signed or unsigned, impartial or biased? Are bibliographical references included?
Web-based works: Some standard reference works have simply been ‘ported’ to the Web, whereas some make more use of its dynamic and virtual nature, including links to other websites. Many websites provide a collection of reference works that can be searched simultaneously. There are also significant sites that serve as reference works.
From: Using reference works. (2003). Retrieved January 14, 2004 from http://toolboxes.flexiblelearning.net.au/demosites/series3/309/
Barker, J. (2003, September 26). Critical evaluation of resources. Retrieved January 14, 2004 from University of California Berkeley Library Website: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/instruct/guides/evaluation.html
Ormondroud, J. (2003, August 15). Critically analyzing information sources. (M. Engle & T. Cosgrove, Eds.). Retrieved January 14, 2004 from Cornell University Library Website: http://www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/research/skill26.htm
Rettig, J. (1996). Beyond cool: Analog models for reviewing digital resources [Electronic version]. Online, 20, 52-64. Retrieved January 14, 2004 from http://web.archive.org/web/20040209025359/http://www.onlinemag.net/SeptOL/rettig9.html
See section entitled Comparative Criteria for Reviewing Reference Books and Web Sites.
Examination of Printed Reference Works
Type of work (e.g. dictionary, gazetteer)
Author or editor (if there is one)
Place of publication
Date of publication
Purpose of work
Arrangement (e.g. alphabetical listing)
Example of a question it might answer
Examination of a Internet reference works/sites
Type of site (e.g. directory, collection of works, information on a particular topic)
Publication details – organization, place, publisher?
Purpose of work
Access (e .g. search only, search and browse, choose a subject grouping from a menu)
Example of a question it might answer