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A handbook (synonymous with manual or guide) is a type of reference book that offers a compilation of pertinent information, most typically on a single subject (Shoop, 2003; Central Library, University of Waikato, 2006). It may contain an exhaustive amount of information on the subject, as in the Physicians’ Desk Reference (PDR) or it may be quite compact, as in William Strunk Jr. and E.B.White’s The Elements of Style. A handbook may be illustrated, as was done in both the PDR or Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers, it is frequently indexed, can include statistics (Reitz, 2006), and may be published serially (Reitz, 2006). If the handbook includes secondary references it should offer proper documentation so a reader can refer to the source (Bopp & Smith, 2001).

Handbooks are as various as the subjects they cover, but a librarian is advised to select handbooks according to the type of users the library is serving, according to Bopp and Smith (2001). These authors suggest that a public librarian may get requests for references as diverse as film guides, home and auto repair manuals, family legal guides, and gardening manuals. There are good, up-to-date, and relatively inexpensive handbooks for each of these categories. However, it is up to the librarian to be sufficiently knowledgeable of his collection to guide the users quickly and efficiently to the right source (or sources) for their answer. An academic or special library will have some of the more common handbooks related to their field(s) but will also include specialty handbooks better suited to the special needs of their users (Bopp & Smith, 2001).

The use of electronic sources can be an enormous aid in speeding up the reference transaction, especially for certain kinds of questions once handled through these various handbooks. Bopp and Smith (2001) and Richardson (1995) find that single answer, fact-type questions, current trivia questions, "last minute"(Richardson, 1995, p. 162) prescription drug information, and difficult or obscure information not readily accessible through the more common handbooks, may be gleaned from reliable and authoritative Internet sources. Of course, the criteria for evaluating web sites are as strict as for the actual reference books they may supersede; as Bopp and Smith state in their guideline for choosing handbooks and other timely reference sources, “accuracy, comprehensiveness, currency of information, and ease of use are all important to both user and librarian.”(p. 359)


A brief history of the handbook


  • The Oxford English Dictionary (1971) cites the first mention of handbook in the Canons of Ælfred, written before 900A.D., and spelled in Old English as “handbóc”(p. 1249).
  • The Oxford English Dictionary also notes that today’s version of the word derives from the 19c. German word “handbuch” (p. 1249)
  • The handbook is one of the twelve original reference sources used in the Hutchins Heuristic (a formula that allows reference librarians to determine which reference source is the best to use for any particular reference question.)
  • Reitz (2006) points out that the Medieval vade mecum refers to a handheld, easily carried volume used during the Middle Ages, the antecedent to today’s handbook, manual or guide.




Bopp, R. E., & Smith, L. C. (2001). "Reference and information services: An introduction." (3rd ed.). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.


"The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary."(1971). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Reitz, J. (2004-6). "Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science." Retrieved November 10, 2006, from http://lu.com/odlis/odlis_h.cfm#handbook


Richardson Jr., John V. (1995). "Knowledge-Based Systems for General Reference Work." San Diego: Academic Press.


Shoop, J. (2003). "Glossary of Library terms." Retrieved October 15, 2006, from http://www.seattlecentral.org/faculty/jshoop/lib101.html


Central Library, University of Waikato, NZ, (2006) "Glossary of Library Terms." Retrieved October 16, 2006, from