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Dictionaries & Encyclopaedias

What are dictionaries and encyclopaedias?

Dictionaries and encyclopaedias are types of reference materials, along with atlases, directories, guides, indexes, etc. Reference materials are resources you might refer to when investigating a new topic as they provide definitions, simple factual information, and topic overviews that explain the main points or broad themes in a particular area.

  • Dictionaries provide a brief definition of a term or topic that can help you understand terminology and find synonyms.
  • Encyclopaedias contain topic overviews or introductions that are useful for defining a research topic or interpreting a concept. 
  • Atlases, directories, guides and indexes are available for certain topics and provide such factual information as maps and charts, lists of organisations or individuals, lists of bibliographic information and links to sources for further study.

Use dictionaries and encyclopaedias to help you understand complex terms and concepts as a springboard for your ongoing research.

General dictionaries and encyclopaedias cover a wide range of topics and provide definitions and overviews that help you develop background knowledge in order to understand a topic or refine your research area. For example look up stigma or conservation or macroeconomics in Credo Reference Collection and you will find entries that cover these topics from varied discipline perspectives. 

Specialist sources are usually discipline specific and provide comprehensive knowledge of key terms and contextual information that may be useful for assignments. For example, use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to look up terms like virtue ethics or the Australian Law Dictionary for a legal understanding of guilt.

Wikipedia contains thousands of entries, in multiple languages, on an abundance of topics, so it is difficult to generalise about whether Wikipedia in its entirety is a “good” source. However, its reputation and reliability have improved over time (Aibar, Lladós-Masllorens, Meseguer-Artola Minguillón, & Lerga, 2015; Mesgari, Okoli, Mehdi, Nielsen, & Lanamaki, 2015).  Entries are usually updated in real time, which is great for current events topics or biographical information. However, as Wikipedia only covers a basic level of information, it’s not appropriate to cite it for university-level work. Instead, use Wikipedia as a way to gain a general understanding of a topic or issue, and use the references in the article to find further information.

Alternatively, you can also use the Library’s more specialised reference sources, such as Credo Reference Collection, as another way of gaining background knowledge on a topic.


Aibar, E., Lladós-Masllorens, J., Meseguer-Artola, A., Minguillón, J., & Lerga, M. (2015). Wikipedia at university: What faculty think and do about it. The Electronic Library, 33(4), 668-683. doi:10.1108/EL-12-2013-021

Mesgari, M., Okoli, C., Mehdi, M., Nielsen, F. Å., & Lanamäki, A. (2015). “The sum of all human knowledge”: A systematic review of scholarly research on the content of Wikipedia. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 66(2), 219-245. doi:10.1002/asi.23172

Learning checklist

Image - Checklist

This guide is designed to help you:

  • Recognise common reference materials, such as dictionaries and encyclopaedias
  • Understand why and when it is appropriate to use these sources
  • Locate print and electronic reference materials in the Library and on the web
  • Apply basic quality criteria to evaluate web sources
  • Reference dictionaries and encyclopaedias correctly