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Building Your Own Reference Library at Home

Kate Marley

Sound expensive? Itís not, when done over time. And while a trained librarian frequently is the right answer, there are also times when a dictionary or almanac may be all you need, particularly for elementary school homework.

Kids can do better work with the appropriate reference books, and having some of these books right at home can be invaluable for you and your child. It will eliminate many of those frantic, last minute trips to the library. A small reference collection won't cure procrastination, but at least it will make the kids less dependent on you for transportation just to reach the material, not to mention the time and trouble involved. Yes, there are times when the library's broader reference is essential, but why pack up the baby, the baby's diaper bag, or the tired toddler, and schlep to the library for an almanac to fill out a 20 item list that's too long to do over the phone? As a mother for over 20 years, and a librarian for ten, believe me! Itís well worth having at home!

More important over the long run, there's the advantage, educationally speaking, that early and repeated use will familiarize kids with using reference books. The basics of research, such as indexes, table of contents, alphabetical order, see alsos, etc., are all grounded upon two simple concepts. If your children can count to 10 and knows their ABC's, that's all they need to start using reference books.

Reference work will lose its bad reputation once a child discovers how basic and easy it all really is in the beginning. Like math, research builds upon itself. This knowledge and ability will also increase a child's confidence with schoolwork.

But reference doesn't have to be dry and boring; more often than not, it's an honest to goodness treasure hunt! Enjoy looking up the fascinating life cycle of the praying mantis, feel the wonder about the mystery of the Anasazi, laugh over the creation of potato chips. And it doesn't have to be limited to schoolwork either (as useful and as practical as that may be), for there are some children who read almanacs and/or encyclopedias for fun. That's fine, too.

So from my own experience as both librarian and parent, I've put together a list of reference books that are the most useful and suitable to buy. Parents needn't go broke - let grandparents, aunts and uncles know that it would be great for Junior to have an atlas or dictionary for his birthday, for the holidays, as a reward for good grades, or just for the love of having a nifty book. Yard sales, consignment stores, and flea markets are great places to pick up older copies. Just make sure that they're not TOO old, particularly for time sensitive assignments.

Dictionaries or encyclopedias should be no more than ten years old. Almanacs and atlases, due to their more timely material, are best bought new. Even new, none of these books (except, of course, encyclopedias) are that expensive, not when looking at the value received. I update my almanac every two or three years. Atlases are another item that should be updated every few years, particularly with all the recent changes in the world these days. But if parents buy one or two reference books every few months, or even a year, they'll quickly have a workable little reference library of their own.


If you buy your child nothing else, buy a dictionary. It's THE basic reference book. Once children learn to use a dictionary (and they can do so surprisingly early if cheerfully and properly encouraged), the road is paved for bigger and better things.

The most important thing to look for in a dictionary for the very young is simplicity. Large print is very important, as well as uncluttered pages, concise entries, and pictures. Above all, look for something user-friendly and attractive, without cutesy, distracting gimmicks like Muppet Babies or Mickey Mouse. Most important, keep in mind that the format should imitate the more advanced dictionaries, with words clearly marching down the page in obvious alphabetical order. Two excellent dictionaries for the beginning reader are the Macmillan First Dictionary , and the American Heritage First Dictionary.

An intermediate level dictionary, from about third grade until fifth or sixth grade, has many more listings, smaller print, and denser text per page. There are fewer pictures and less white space, but since their next dictionary will probably be an adult one, this will be a good transition for children. Some good examples are the Macmillan Dictionary for Children, the Thorndike-Barnhart Children's Dictionary (Harper/Collins), the Kingfisher Illustrated Childrenís Dictionary, Webster's Intermediate Dictionary and their Webster's New World Children's Dictionary , as well as the American Heritage Children's Dictionary .

The next most useful purchase is an almanac. While there are many fine almanacs on the market, all updated annually, my favorite is the World Almanac and Book of Facts. This is not only an excellent reference but fairly easy (except for the admittedly small print and thin pages) to use. Almanacs can be used as a compliment or substitution for an encyclopedia. Most people don't realize what an incredibly rich reference source these handy little books are. They have a nearly endless supply of lists, many of which kids need for their homework. List the presidents. What are the Seven Natural Wonders of the World? Name the elements. And so on. They also have thumbnail sketches of countries and of our own fifty states, with population, area heads of state, exports, nicknames, etc. There are small vignettes of historical events, measurement charts, a perpetual calendar, and facts about the oldest, biggest, or firsts of lots of stuff. A wonderful source!

Once your child has a dictionary and an almanac, get an atlas. This is invaluable for all those years of blank map assignments or for tracing the country complete with rivers, mountains, and major cities. Or for the homework that asks for the neighbors of Nepal, or where the Hebrides are located. Many fine atlases, such as Goode's World Atlas are out in paperback, and there are also many inexpensive and abridged notebook editions meant to be put in a student's binder.

As your children get into middle school and high school, there are other reference books that you may want to add to the basics already mentioned. A thesaurus is useful, and entertaining as well. (My kids liked to look up odd, insulting names like gowk or olid to call each other.) With the added emphasis on writing proficiency, a thesaurus will give your children broader horizons with their vocabulary. Some people prefer the dictionary style thesaurus, or even the watered down versions in word processing programs, but I firmly believe the original Roget's Thesaurus has much more scope, is more effecient, and generally well worth the extra step.

. Having a style manual at home can be such a relief for setting up bibliographies, footnotes, or other niceties of term papers or book reports. Sometimes high schools will specify a particular style manual, or put out one of their own. But if they donít, two worth owning (and cheap for the hassles they will save you and your older students) are Strunk and White's Elements of Style , or Kate Turabian's Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations .

If your child takes a foreign language, a dictionary of, say English-Spanish, Spanish- English will be very useful. Books that list the conjugated verbs are great for serious language students as well. Other specialty books for other subjects will probably appear from time to time as your children expand their minds and interests. But best of all, just about everything mentioned here (except the encyclopedias) comes in paperback.

Although incredibly valuable as a reference tool, encyclopedias are listed last simply because they are so expensive. But if you can afford it, they are still a great source of first line information for the whole family. Most folks these days get their family encyclopedias on CD-Roms, which would be much cheaper than volumes if one didnít need a computer to run them.

A Bit About Computers and the Web

With a computer, there are an incredible number of choices in all kinds of reference books, especially encyclopedias. Choosing one name over another can come down to personal preferences; most of the multimedia encyclopedias are pretty good. Iíve used the World Book Information Finder, Grolierís and the Encarta of various years, and all had excellent qualities.

Wading through it all can be intimidating and time consuming, so try consulting one of the many books and magazines that screen software. Other than our own column here in Baltimoreís Child, try Family PC, a national magazine obviously geared for parents. Also, ask around and try what other folks have, because nothing beats using it yourself. Software can be expensive, and with so much available, parents can afford to be choosy.

And of course, thereís the Web. To tell you about whatís available for kids on the web would take a whole book - and there are some great books just for that, as Iíve mentioned. But like swimming, the best way to learn is to just dive in. Pick a search engine, any search engine (such as Alta Vista, Google, or Ask Jeeves) and search for your subject. (Note: do this WITH your kids, because sometimes the most innocent search can pull up-well, not so innocent stuff. Not to mention the necessity for keeping focused on the task at hand, and getting distracted by that cool pop-up banner.)

There are lots of directories and lists to help kids, such as the notable B.J. Pinchbeckís Homework Helper (supposedly put up by a twelve year old, address of which has links to hundreds and hundreds of good reference sites. Another useful thing that kids will learn (hopefully) from looking up stuff online is the added enhancement of Boolean searching. This will teach children how to focus and narrow their search requests for optimal hits.

With so many reference sources online, many people ask, "Why buy the actual books?" As with anything, there are pros and cons. On the plus side, if youíve bought this expensive computer, and youíre already paying for internet access on top of that, why pay out even more to buy books or software that are just sitting on the web?

My answer is speed and timeliness. Even with the fastest computer, by the time one boots up, dials in, and pulls up the program or logs on the net, most people could have found, say, the definition of a word in a regular dictionary. And for most quick reference questions, I still prefer to use my real books because itís just plain faster. Particularly if the computer isnít working, or someone else is using it, or waiting for the pages to download, or if the information superhighway has one of their rolling backups at that particular time - it happens. So no matter how great I think the net is for research (and it really, really is!) I will never, ever, part with my essential books.


Teaching children to use any of these reference tools - whether books or online materials, but hopefully both - is not difficult. Time consuming, occasionally frustrating, but not really difficult. Just be prepared to repeat and help them over and over in a patient, no- nonsense manner. It's time well invested, with a high return in the later years. Do the teaching when there is little pressure, and certainly not late at night, or you will doom yourself and your child to disappointments and tears.

Kids like learning about new things, so let their natural curiosity work for you. Set the example, and be the first to grab a reference book for even those everyday questions. Look up that strange bug she found on the porch, help him find out more about the Jurassic period. It's really not hard to make reference fun and interesting. Let reference books help organize your childís foray into the diversity, wealth, and fun of non-fiction. With all the information available these days, knowing how to find it is still important, and computers still don't have it all. Besides, so much computer information is still in reference books!

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