Reference Resources

Using Reference Sources for History of Science Research

Whether you are just beginning to explore research topics or you are conducting advanced study in the history of science, technology, or medicine, we have a wide variety of reference sources to assist you.

Biographical, topical, and period encyclopedias can be useful in introducing you to the people, ideas, events, and movements of significance in your area of interest. They can help you conduct a literature search by identifying key books and articles and by providing overviews of how your topic has been previously treated. Working with these resources can help you fine-tune searches in the online catalog and databases. Bibliographies and indexes will familiarize you with the secondary literature and will lead you to relevant primary sources.

Reference resources can be found in the Collections as well as in the Reference Area of Bizzell Library (main floor), and in the branch libraries. Even when held in Bizzell, reference works are typically non-circulating to guarantee their availability to all users at all times. Materials in the History of Science Collections do not circulate (see our hours of operation). However, many works are available as E-books and can be viewed through links in the their OU Library catalog records. In addition, you can access many many E-Reference materials from the “Find Books” link on the History of Science Resources page of the OU Library web site. You need to be logged in with your 4 x 4 to access these E-Resources.

What follows is a select sampling of reference works, illustrating the types of resources available for your research projects. Links to the OU Library catalog record will indicate where a particular resource can be found (online, in Bizzell Reference, Bizzell stacks, and/or in the History of Science Collections). For those of you new to the field and working on undergraduate research papers, you may find it useful to browse through the reference books shelved in the Roller Reading Room in the Collections.

Broad Overviews

Image of Nye volume of Cambridge series
In these types of works you will find overviews and/or critical analyses of the state of research for particular topics. Here are some notable examples:

Biographical Works

Different types of biographical dictionaries are available, emphasizing time periods, disciplines, and/or other specialized topics. The classic
Dictionary of Scientific Biography
has recently been supplemented with a new edition. The content of both editions is accessible through an online edition. Examples of some of the more narrowly focused biographical encyclopedias include:

Topics, Cultures, Disciplines

You can find encyclopedias that focus on specific topics, periods and cultures, or scientific disciplines, as shown below:






Bibliographies and similar guides are available to assist with all levels of research. Annotated bibliographies include critical commentaries in addition to extensive lists of resources. Keep in mind that many databases do not include citations to works published before the 1970s, so it can be worthwhile to spend time browsing through print guides like:

Here is a sampling of titles from another useful series:

Bibliographies also provide access to primary source material and the holdings of other libraries and collections. Some examples include:

Another important resource for history of science research is the Isis Cumulative Bibliography. This multivolume series includes citations from annual Isis reviews of the literature, from 1914 through 1995. This print work is still useful since not all of the content from these early decades is available in the online edition of the bibliography, the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine database (see our previous post for more info on this database).

Source Books of Primary Sources

These types of works provide the reader with access to the original writings of notable authors. Some examples are:

Research Tools

Many different types of reference materials can assist you with your research projects, including the following:

Beyond the History of Science, Technology & Medicine

History of Science is an interdisciplinary area of study. Don’t forget to look at general reference works and subject specific resources from other fields. For example:

See also OU Library’s subject resources pages for History and other fields.

Staff Favorites

While some reference sources in the Collections are kept in the Roller Reading Room, most are shelved in a non-public area. To promote awareness of these materials on the part of our own staff and student workers, we conducted the following exercise. We asked everyone to browse our reference shelves and pick three books in response to the following criteria: 1) Most unusual/interesting, 2) Most useful to a particular patron and, 3) The one you wish you could take home. A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts was the work most frequently selected. View the entire list of staff favorites.

About ouhos

Kerry Magruder, Curator; and JoAnn Palmeri, Librarian
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