Reference Core Collection

Core Reference Collection


Description and Rationale

This reference collection is designed to serve a middle school library media center.  The school hosts approximately 300 students in the 7th and 8th grade.  The demographic is approximately 97% African-American.  The school qualifies for full Title I services for high poverty, and all students are served free lunch, although a small minority do not come from disadvantaged homes.  Approximately 40 students are classified as gifted; however, any student with proficient benchmark scores, early demonstration of creativity, and/or an interest in the gifted program is permitted to join.  Truly gifted students number approximately 15 to 20.  Approximately 50% of the school scores basic or below basic in reading and 65-70% score basic or below basic in math.  Average reading level of these students is 5th to 6th grade.  Most students do have some Internet access outside of school; however, this may not be at home, and very few have working printers or adequate technology in the home.  A large majority of the students have few to no research skills; many have difficulty using a dictionary or a thesaurus.  Average class size is approximately 15 students.  The budget is small, and varies widely; often, the librarian must simply request a given amount of money and justify the reason for the expenditure.  Special projects in the library are funded through small grants, particularly DonorsChoose.

The computer lab is housed in the library with approximately sixteen working machines, all Internet-connected.  The lab has one printer, which is free for students to use for school-related purposes only.  The school also has a laptop cart with 24 laptops, which can connect wirelessly to the network, but cannot connect to the printer.  The school district pays for access to United Streaming Media for all schools.  The state pays for access to EBSCOHost and utilizes a network called NetTrekker, free to all students in the state.  NetTrekker hosts links to high-quality websites arranged by core subject and topic.  It also links to, which is a freely accessible resource to anybody. 

The school’s stated mission is as follows: “We believe it is important to empower all students to become self-disciplined, productive, and globally competitive by setting high expectations through a rigorous and relevant curriculum in a safe environment.”  The vision, similarly stated, reads as follows: “To create a holistic educational experience that [sic] students to become globally competitive in society” (Retrieved from Page.html). The library’s mission includes promotion of reading and literacy skills, instruction in information and technology literacy, and support and guidance to all students to help them attain personal excellence and high achievement.  The daily operation of the school defines student success as proficient scores on the state benchmark exams.  The school focuses predominantly on reading and math, particularly on objective skills as tested on the benchmark.  However, the library does need to provide reference services for several events and projects outside of benchmark testing.  These include the following: science fair, Black History Month with accompanying projects, the study of Arkansas history, and several other social studies projects involving Black Americans.  Language Arts includes a basic-level research project, usually on animals or social concerns, and may include projects designed for outside publication.

In meeting the needs of this population, several things must be taken into account.  The low reading level of the majority of students must be considered; finding reference materials that are accessible to them while still containing enough information is essential.  Many of the students are not put off by material designed for younger children; they see it as “easy” and “not work.” However, the material must be of a high enough level for students to be able to meet the project requirements of the teachers.  Materials will need to be selected and kept current for the major projects that do occur through the year.

The print reference collection will remain small.  The state and district provide several online resources for the schools at no cost to the individual school.  Since the reference collection does not circulate, limitations to access will be no different than they would be if the library held only print reference.  The circulating nonfiction collection will continue to be regularly weeded and developed to allow students to take materials home they might find useful.  Children may also use the library before school and at lunch, and have free access to the printer.  The library maintains enough computers to meet the general demand, and students prefer online research to print research.  Since some print resources are usually required, the library will continue to maintain nonfiction and reference print collections, but will focus predominantly on online resources.

Core Collection


Ÿ         American Heritage Student Dictionary. 2010. Houghton Mifflin. 

This dictionary was selected for several reasons.  It is extremely current, with a publication date of 2010.  It contains several different guides and explanations of use in the front that are colorful and clearly marked, making it a useful tool for instruction, and it is widely considered a reputable source of information.  Many terms are illustrated in color.  The font is larger, with bold entries and a simple enough vocabulary that most of the students will be able and willing to access it.  It routinely includes people of color both in definition and illustration, which will appeal to my patrons.  It also frequently contains sidebars and captions with additional information like word roots and parts that can be used for information literacy instruction and are part of the students’ curriculum and state standards.  Several copies of this dictionary will be maintained for students of lower reading levels, although any who wish to may use it.

Ÿ         American Heritage College  Dictionary. 2007. Houghton Mifflin. 

Some copies of this dictionary will be maintained as well.  It is also relatively current, and approximately the same reading level; however it offers more depth and breadth than the student version.  It will be useful for students who need more than the student dictionary can offer or who would like further explanation.  It will also be helpful for the honors students who may prefer a more adult resource, and who have the ability to make use of it.

Ÿ         New Oxford American  Dictionary. 2010. Oxford University Press. 

At least one copy of this dictionary will be kept on hand because Oxford is well-known as the most reputable and comprehensive dictionary produced.  This version also includes a CD-Rom of the complete dictionary, which can be utilized from a computer and will help students wanting to access the information who may have difficulty with the smaller print or language of the print version. 


Ÿ         Compton’s by Britannica. 2010. Encyclopedia Britannica. 

I selected this encyclopedia as the one I would like to maintain in print.  It is specifically geared for 5th to 9th grade students.  Britannica is a reputable source for information, and the encyclopedia has been designed to appear current and inviting to 21st-century learners.  It contains traditional articles, but also includes colorful graphics and many captions, sidebars, and highlights.  It comes with teacher reproducibles and lesson material to teach beginning research skills, which my patrons need, and the reading level is low enough that the students should be able to access it without trouble. 

Ÿ         World Book Online. World Book.

For students doing more advanced research, and for students who may need audiovisual support, World Book consistently impressed me with its many features and scaled level of depth.  Most students prefer to access information online; this encyclopedia consistently provides quality information and a huge variety of features for both instruction and accessibility.  The tiers allow students to pursue the depth of information they need at the reading level they find manageable.  The encyclopedias are loaded with pictures and videos which can help students who struggle with reading obtain information in other ways.  It has special sections linked from the front page that can be used both for instruction and student research, including an exploration of the state and a series of research tools and citation “how-to’s.”  Citation is a huge issue for my patrons and being able to easily give them the tools to cite their work will make everyone happier.  The site also allows easy access to biographies for student projects, and each article offers links for further reading and research.  Articles contain a double-click-to-define window that does not take students off the page they are reading.  The encyclopedias are attractive and inviting, even including activities to invite students to stay on the site simply for the enjoyment of it.  The only thing I could not find that I would really like (and it may exist, but I was unable to locate it) is an audio feature that would allow students the option of having an article read to them.  Many of the boys at the school will willingly sit through an audio book or audio presentation if their reading skills are poor., and that feature would be a great way to help them research independently.


Ÿ         Rand McNally Road Atlas: United States, Canada, Mexico. 2012. Rand McNally

For basic reference questions and map-reading skills, a U.S. atlas is a must.  Rand McNally is a well-known mapmaking source; this atlas documents the entire United States in traditional map color and style.  Many of our students have never traveled outside of Arkansas, and have very little concept of where cities and states are or how far away they are.  While this may not have overt curricular tie-ins, I think for students as informationally deprived as ours, it is a necessity.

Ÿ         Arkansas: An Illustrated Atlas. Tom Paradise. 2011. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies

This is a brand-new resource, and I was not able to review the inside.  However, it is listed as a 9-12 reading level, and was reviewed positively by several educational, political and journalistic organizations.  It includes facts, statistics, and demographic information.  Since the students are required to study Arkansas history, including atlases targeted specifically at the state is a must both for instruction in using the resource and for curricular purposes.

Ÿ         National Geographic Historical Atlas of the United States. Ron Fisher. 2004. National Geographic

The publication date on this resource concerns me slightly; however, it was the only resource I found that was both reputable and at an appropriate reading level for my students.  Since historical atlases would be likely to be used in instruction or research, I want this piece to be readable by the bulk of my students. Being from National Geographic, this resource is photo-rich, and also spotlights important events in American history. 

Ÿ         Atlas of the World: Seventeenth Edition. 2010. Oxford University Press

This atlas is not only from Oxford, but is updated annually and can always be replaced with a current version.  It contains all sorts of information, including current global issues such as food scarcity, and beautiful satellite images of Earth.  It is well-organized and colorful, and reviews from highly reputable sources like Forbes and School Library Journal are all excellent.  Students will need instruction in how to use it, but reading maps and atlases is a life skill, making it useful for instruction.  The students do study world history and geography, making it an important curricular piece as well.  It is even useful for geographical research as it contains in-depth information and statistics on locations around the globe.

*Something I think would also be of use is a readable world history atlas.  I reviewed several but was unable to find an updated one that I felt would serve my students’ best interests: most were either far too adult or too simplistic.  If I had to select one right now, I would choose the Atlas of World History by Patrick O’Brien, but although this would be a useful resource, the need for it is not urgent.  I would table purchase until an up-to-date edition of a reputable, student-friendly atlas is published.


Ÿ         American Heritage Student Thesaurus. 2009. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Similar to the American Heritage dictionary, this thesaurus contains many elements I like for students without a high reading level or many reference skills.  The front contains a simple breakdown of thesaurus entries and how to read them.  The font is easy to read with entries standing out clearly in blue, synonyms in bold, and antonyms set apart by a special symbol and the word “Antonyms.” This thesaurus also supports struggling readers because it uses each entry in a simple sentence to help students understand the meaning in a context.  The font is large enough to read easily, and the thesaurus entries contain synonyms that will appeal to both challenged readers and also more proficient ones looking to add variety to their writing.

Ÿ         The New American Roget’s College Thesaurus in Dictionary Form. 2002. Signet.

Every school library should have at least one copy of a higher level thesaurus, unless they serve nothing over third grade.  With seventh and eighth grade students, particularly gifted ones, an intermediate level thesaurus will not always do the job.  I selected this one because Roget’s is highly reputable, and the collegiate level thesaurus offers plenty of selection for a middle school student without being completely overwhelming.  (The international version lists words such as ovate and vagina as synonyms for “duct.”)  While the smaller print will deter some students, the other thesaurus is available for their use.  Some middle school students will be ready for and appreciate being able to use an essentially adult reference tool.  While this resource is dated 2002, most of the others that seemed appropriate were far older.

 Other Resources

Ÿ         Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. 2004. Gale

Before purchasing this set, I would need to take several things into account, budget being primary.  This 17-volume set is perhaps the most comprehensive student-level resource on the animal kingdom that is currently on the market.  It is organized with a full-volume set index and arranged scientifically by taxonomy.  One of its best features is the intense extremely photo-richness.  The language may make some of my patrons work a bit, but as a general reference on animals, it is simply the best available.  I have seen students in second and third grade use it without too much difficulty, but they were very strong readers and decent researchers.  The set is extremely expensive also, so it would have to be a secondary “wish list” sort of pick.  However, with the full index and the taxonomic organization, it would be a good tool for teaching both reference and research skills.  The print is not enormous and the text blocks might deter low-level readers, but for the quasi-proficient up, it should be an accessible resource.  Most species also have a fact sheet that breaks down important basic information, so students who feel intimidated by the larger written sections can still pull usable information from the resource.  The organization would have to be taught and some students might have difficulty locating the volume with the information they needed. 

Ÿ         __ Science Fair Projects: Revised and Expanded Using the Scientific Method. 2010. Enslow Publishers. (Related to the Ace Your ___ Science Project: Great Science Fair Ideas.)

Science fair has become something of a major event in the last few years at the school, spawned by an enthusiastic new science teacher.  Many of the students are in eighth grade and have never before participated in a science fair.  An important part of spring centers around the teaching of the scientific method and the selection of science fair projects.  While many students do search online, they often are overwhelmed with a slew of random ideas and have difficulty selecting projects with merit.  I think a collection like this would be a great resource to help get them moving in the right direction.  The collection is current, so will have them studying up-to-date ideas, and is geared for fifth through eighth grade.  There are about seven titles organized by major scientific topic: chemistry, electromagnetism, forces and motion, and so on.  The books have received good reviews from School Library Journal. They are comprised of introductory material and “recipes” for different science fair projects that include black-and-white pictures.  The reading level is generally about a sixth grade level.  While they are not the most exciting resource, they are a well organized way to start kids on the trail of finding a science project in which they will be interested.  The set would run under $200, so they are not a terribly expensive resource, and are virtually guaranteed to see heavy use at the right time of the year.

Ÿ         Student Almanac of African American History. 2003. Greenwood Press.

While most of the students’ social studies research is conducted online, the need for quality information on people of color and the need for role models the students can identify with is great enough that I felt a print set related specifically to African American history would be a good idea.  “Almanac” may be something of a misnomer; this two-volume set follows the history of the African American people group from the time Columbus arrived in the Americas to the present day.  The books contain both glossary and set index, along with a CD-Rom and several resources inside for further reading and online exploration, making them a nice jumping off point into research.  The reading level has been debated; Follett rates them at a high 7.7 while School Library Journal comments that they are best for students uncomfortable with more intense material.  The books are illustrated with pictures, black and white photographs, and sidebar material that include multiple primary sources and reproductions of original documents.  The goal for this set is to serve as teacher support when needed, and more importantly, to serve as an introductory point for students to begin doing research or finding ideas when they are developing projects.  From this resource, they can find relevant information and also are given several other leads to continue on with more in-depth research.

Ÿ         Best Books for Middle-School and Junior High Readers. Catherine Barr & John T. Gillespie. 2009. Libraries Unlimited.

Ÿ         Popular Series Fiction for Middle School & Teen Readers. Rebecca L. Thomas & Catherine Barr. 2009. Libraries Unlimited.

Ÿ         Graphic Novels: A Genre Guide to Comic Books, Manga & More. Michael Pawuk. 2007. Libraries Unlimited.

These three pieces represent a ready-reference set for me as a librarian to a severely underprivileged and literacy-deprived population.  They contain literally thousands of recommendations and annotations on books meant for my patrons’ age and ability levels.  They were published by professionals in the library field and received excellent reviews for being comprehensive.  The books are indexed by author, title, and by subject, making them a great tool for a librarian in a hurry – and with children of any age, including teens, we are always in a hurry trying to provide them with what they want before they become frustrated or impatient.  While these resources would probably not be appropriate for the students, due to intensely print-heavy pages, small type and somewhat confusing organization, they will be invaluable to a librarian whose goal is to promote love of reading and strong literacy skills.  To help the students become proficient on state exams, we must help them become readers, and to do that, we must be able to match them to a “just-right” book.

Online Resources

As mentioned before, the state and district already provide access to a wide variety of online resources including EBSCOHost and United Streaming/Discovery.  Access is also provided to the Encyclopedia Britannica School Edition Online, Gale, and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture free of charge, which covers a substantial section of my students’ and teachers’ research and curricular needs.  However, I think the online collection could be expanded in ways that will benefit my patrons and help meet school and library goals.

Ÿ         Gizmos! with 

Gizmos! is fabulous subscription-based online simulation site.  Each gizmo is targeted to a specific learning concept, giving students an opportunity to participate in a hands-on experiment with that particular idea.  The gizmos are accompanied by well-written lesson plans and supplemental material as well, which helps teachers use them effectively in the classroom.  Lesson activities are included which promote inquiry and critical thinking skills.  With the laptop cart available for checkout from the library, gizmos can easily be incorporated into the classroom when they are appropriate.  The interactive “game” feel of Gizmos appeals to our patrons, particularly our boys, and can help make concepts clear to visual and kinesthetic learners, as well as supporting struggling readers.  I particularly like this resource for our school because many of the gizmos target math and science concepts, where the library has few other strong resources to offer in the reference collection.  The Gizmos! site has won numerous, repeated awards every year and is highly acclaimed by multiple experts. In addition, several content teachers have reviewed them over time, and found them consistently useful, engaging, and of high quality.

Ÿ         Biography Reference Bank

Though this is available in Ohio through INFOhio, no evidence could be found suggesting Arkansas provided the same resource for their students.  This is such an excellent resource for students doing biographical reports, which are prevalent in our curriculum.  It includes many features that make it both useful and versatile.  Though the text of the biographies is sometimes longer and difficult for struggling readers, the database supports these users with a read-aloud feature.  Since many students can comprehend far more than they may be able to read (Harper, 146), this feature makes the database accessible to more students.  Each biography opens with the biography itself, then provides many other options for retrieving information such as recent articles, reviews, and books about the person.  The search features of this database also make it extremely useful.  Students can search by a person’s name, of course, but they can also search by gender, place of origin, and profession.  Students needing information about astronauts from Ohio could find it here.  Keyword fields allow for searching in other ways too; the database responds correctly to terms like “African-American.”  It would be entirely possible for a student to search the database for African-American and inventors under profession and find results.  Each bio also contains several photographs of the individual, as well as a standard set of options to print, save, email, and cite the articles located.  This database would be an excellent one to teach prior to a biographical research project, and the instruction could be used to incorporate information literacy and search skills at a point of need for students.

Ÿ         BrainPop

This site is notable first for its high engagement level.  BrainPop is a site that combines education with entertainment so well that students will go there to “play” when they are in the library before school and at lunch.  It contains high-interest cartoon videos, activities, and quizzes in a trendy, colorful format.  Videos are narrated, bypassing issues of struggling readers, but the information is high quality and could be used in a student project.  BrainPop also offers support for educators in using and incorporating BrainPop as part of the classroom, such as printable activity sheets and graphic organizers.  Topics cover all core subjects, plus some others such as Health and Technology.

Ÿ         The World Almanac Online

I did not include print almanacs because it seems to be a resource that would go largely unused.  However, as students prefer working online, if I were to add an almanac to my reference collection, this would be the one.  World Almanac Online is put out by the same people who produce the print version.  It has a clean, easy-to-navigate interface and a sea of facts and statistics about any major topic students might want to explore.  For information literacy and accessibility purposes, it has saving and exporting features, along with a citation feature that makes citation information easily available to students trying to do research.  This almanac reminds me slightly of a print children’s almanac in that it contains many pictures and photographs, which are useful and engaging to students.  The almanac contains information for research such as statistics on countries and cities, government items of interest, and economic issues, but students may also find information and statistics on their favorite celebrities or sports teams. 

Ÿ         Marshall Cavendish Digital

Students do more projects that require library research in social studies and science than in any other classes.  While they have several general resources, I wanted to find at least one good database geared toward middle school social studies or science.  In Marshall Cavendish, my patrons get both.  All the major subject databases in Marshall Cavendish are either focused on a science branch or on a history or geography issue.  It specifically contains databases with information on the ancient and medieval world, and the Muslim world, both of which are major topics in the social studies curriculum.  The resource has been reviewed favorably by many qualified experts such as Booklist, School Library Journal, and School Library Media Activities Monthly.  An interactive guided tour of the database can quickly show student users how to access the features they want, and how to get the most out of their time using the resource.  It demonstrates several types of searches and explains the results.  Searches can be sorted by the media format in which they appear and by title, and a browse feature allows students to examine only certain types of resources in a larger category, such as photographs or maps.  The database offers several research tools, including a glossary which is easy to read and linked.  Like World Book, this database employs a double-click-to-define tool for all words, and highlights search terms within a selected article for quick location.  Entries are laid out and organized well with different colored text to set off titles and headings, and colorful illustrations.  The font is large enough to make reading comfortable and can be easily adjusted with an onscreen tool.  Articles have navigation features embedded in a sidebar, allowing students to move quickly around the article to find what they want.  Standard print, email, citation, and bookmark features are also included.  This database actually allows students to take and save notes on each page of the article for future reference as well.  The wide variety of features for my students and the easy-to-use tutorials and site design make this a good choice to help students navigate their research-based assignments in two difficult subjects.

Ÿ         SIRS Discoverer

I examined several magazine databases geared toward middle school students, and SIRS is my favorite.  SIRS contains a solid bank of magazines, newspapers and reference books, including many students would find in Searchasaurus, but moving them farther beyond it.  The interface is colorful and easy to navigate, divided into several major subject headings, but not overly childish.  Many articles contain linked multimedia like maps, captioned images, or high quality recommendations for further study, particularly websites.  The database also has several useful features accessible straight from the home page, such as suggestions for good websites for kids, the SIRS top pick of photographs for the day, and links to current events, an encyclopedia, and World Almanac.  This database is very student-oriented too, with many features designed to help young people learn not just how to use the database, but how to do research.  Links right by the Quick Search box suggest advanced search options, and offer search tips.  Tips and tutorials are offered along the bottom page bar, and citation information and instructions are also available.  The homepage even highlights features such as a page for suggested research topics, which my students would find very useful, and most commonly requested reference items like biographies, dictionaries, pictures, maps and activities. Search results are color coded by reading difficulty and use icons to represent available extra features like related links and photographs.  Searches can be narrowed to newspapers, magazines or websites as well.  No read-aloud option seems to exist, but with the obvious leveling and the wide variety of sources in the database, students should be able to find articles written at their ability levels.  This database is wonderfully organized and geared perfectly toward the age group being served in my library.  It also serves teachers and librarians by not only being designed for information literacy instruction, but by providing resources specifically to teach information literacy by using the SIRS database.

Optional Extras

Ÿ         Oxford Reference Online

If the money is available, I would like to include this reference as well.  Print dictionaries are necessary in the library for instruction and sometimes simply for ease of use, but the Oxford online reference source is far more comprehensive.  The site offers access to the finest, most comprehensive dictionary in the English language, as well as a host of other resources including an encyclopedia, a quotations database, and many visual and multimedia resources like timelines and maps.  It even includes subject-specific dictionaries and resources for most major areas of education.  This resource is not geared toward students particularly, although it does contain several useful features.  The Help section is well organized and contains screenshots to demonstrate how to perform basic and advanced tasks within the database; a “search tips” section also offers quick hints for how to get the most out of a search.  The concern I have with the database is that it offers so much, students could easily get overwhelmed, particularly with the higher reading level required for accessing it.  While I appreciate this resource and would like to have it available, it would be an early cut from the list if money was short and something had to go.