The Best Reference Books of the Year

Though reference works are generally thought to be purely informational, no book is free from its author’s point of view. Many of the titles this year demonstrate that reference can take a stand.

Though reference works are generally thought to be purely informational, no book is free from its author’s point of view. Many of the titles this year demonstrate that reference can take a stand. Racism in American Films and ­ Misogyny in American Culture argue that oppressive attitudes are embedded in our society, while offering superb research and coverage. In compiling the list, my committee of LJ reviewers and I also considered the bias of industry gatekeepers. Who is left out when it comes to "best of" lists? To make our compilation more inclusive, we were pleased to feature Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, a stunning work that highlights Native perspectives, as well as Black Power Encyclopedia, whose primary source excerpts give voice to the major players in the movement. We’re also happy to present a list that speaks to many of the questions that your patrons will be asking in both the short and long term. Our political situation is dire—how did we get here? Direct readers to Atlas of the 2016 Elections. Why is "fake news" such an epidemic? The Encyclopedia of Misinformation has some answers. Yet there are whimsy and joy in the mix, too—from everything you ever wanted to know about tractors to an encyclopedia of hip-hop to several odes to maps. And don’t miss our roundup of best databases and best free websites and apps.—Mahnaz Dar


Mustich, James. 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List. Workman. 960p. illus. index. ISBN 9781523504459. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781523505128.
Bibliophiles with ever-growing “to be read” piles will find this bucket list of books a worthy challenge. Pithy profiles get to the heart of a rich variety of works: children’s literature, suspense, sf, and romance keep company with memoirs, graphic novels, and more. Mustich, founder of the book catalog A Common Reader, endears himself to those conducting readers’ advisory, too, with further reading and read-alikes for each title, as well as detailed indexing. (LJ 8/18)

Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past. Princeton Univ. 144p. ed. by Roberta Casagrande-Kim & others. illus. ISBN 9780691181844. $35.
Islamic contributions in math and science are well known. Less familiar is the effect of classical antiquity on the creative imagination in Muslim lands, where, between the eighth and tenth centuries, translation conveyed the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece. Besides enthralling images of manuscripts, essays focus on the Persian depictions of Alexander the Great and the influence of the classical tradition on Islamic medicine, philosophy, and science.

St. James Encyclopedia of Hip Hop Culture. Gale Cengage. 579p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781410380814. $285.
No single work can tell the entire story of hip-hop, but this encyclopedia, the first on the topic in more than a decade, comes close. From Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” to the deaths of legends Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur to recent reality shows such as Love and Hip Hop, it’s all here. With color photos and extensive indexing and cross-­referencing, this dazzling tome chronicles the evolution of a pivotal musical genre.

Wilhide, Elizabeth. The Complete Pattern Directory: 1500 Designs from All Ages and Cultures. Black Dog & Leventhal. 672p. illus. index. ISBN 9780316418232. $45.
Magnificent color illustrations depict 1,500 patterns in five categories (flora, fauna, geometric, pictorial, and abstract). Wilhide ( Plain Simple Useful; The Essential House Book) explores key designers such as William Morris, Sonia Delaunay, and Charles and Ray Eames; identifies motifs of period styles; and notes the influence of women. Indexes allow users to search by date, designer, and country. Essential for artists, designers, and art historians.


Ramge, Thomas & Jan Schwochow. The Global Economy as You’ve Never Seen It: 99 Ingenious Infographics That Put It All Together. Experiment. 216p. maps. index. ISBN 9781615195176. $35.
Using infographics to brilliant effect, Ramge (technology correspondent, brand eins) and Schwochow (founder, CEO, ­Infographics Group) have produced an informative atlas-like work that explains the international economy. Everything about this book is splendid, from the ingenious table of contents to coverage of a wide range of topics: manufacturing, sustainability, Karl Marx, and more. An incredibly comprehensible volume on a potentially intimidating subject. (LJ 11/15/18)


Klancher, Lee. Tractor: The Heartland Innovation, Ground-Breaking Machines, Midnight Schemes, Secret Garages, and Farmyard Geniuses That Mechanized Agriculture. Octane. 240p. illus. index. ISBN 9781937747954. $29.95.
Whether patrons have an interest in tractors or not, photographer and journalist Klancher’s brisk writing and careful research will captivate them as he presents this reference on tractor history, innovation, key machines, and notable designers. Photos from the Library of Congress and local historical societies share space with line drawings and eye-popping color images. Entries on “Old Reliable,” “Big Bud,” and “The Blue Beast” lead to a conceptual design for a driverless auto­guided tractor. Stories of breakthroughs, failures, and chicanery are sprinkled throughout. A gem for rural and urban libraries.

Sorgatz, Rex. The Encyclopedia of Misinformation: A Compendium of Imitations, Spoofs, Delusions, Simulations, Counterfeits, Impostors, Illusions, Confabulations, Skullduggery, Frauds, Pseudoscience, Propaganda, Hoaxes, Flimflam, Pranks, Hornswoggle, Conspiracies & Miscellaneous Fakery. Abrams. 256p. illus. by Lorenzo Petrantoni. ISBN 9781419729119. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781683352341.
Writer and designer Sorgatz provides an amusing tour of misinformation. Many topics will be recognizable to anyone familiar with pop culture, including Area 51, the deep state, flat earth theory, and the moon landing hoax. This unique compilation clearly shows that “fake news” in its many forms—deception, propaganda, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and more—has long been a part of the human condition. (LJ 7/18)



Medical Symptoms: A Visual Guide; The Easy Way To Identify Medical Problems. DK. 256p. illus. index. ISBN 9781465459145. pap. $19.95.
Gorgeously intricate illustrations enrich this highly detailed three-part anatomy atlas. The volume ties common symptoms to specific body parts and defines potential issues such as gallstones and heart attack. Superb organization distinguishes this work—readers can search by general symptom, by organ, or by specific system or ­disorder. (LJ 4/1/18)

Neal’s Yard Remedies. Complete Wellness: Enjoy Long-Lasting Health and Well-Being with More Than 800 Natural Remedies . DK. 304p. illus. index. ISBN 9781465463920. $30.
Compiled by UK-based organic health and beauty company Neal’s Yard Remedies, this thorough guide examines the healing properties of herbs, essential oils, holistic therapies, and diet. It also provides specific health information for women, men, and children; directions on how to make herbal supplements, oils, and balms; and recipes designed to promote wellness. An outstanding ready-reference for those wishing to take a holistic approach to health or those concerned about the side effects of pharmaceuticals.


Akbarnia, Ladan & others. The Islamic World: A History in Objects. Thames & Hudson. 272p. photos. bibliog. ISBN 9780500480403. $39.95.
Cultural artifacts including ceramics, textiles, and metalwork trace Islam from 750 to today, in this deep dive into the Islamic world from West Africa to Southeast Asia. Vibrant photos depict architectural decoration, jewelry, calligraphy, musical instruments, coins, illustrated manuscripts, and modern and contemporary art. A glossary and bibliography; background on pre-Islamic history and religious beliefs and practices; and context for recent artwork make this ideal for even those with little knowledge on the topic.

Battles That Changed History. DK. 256p. maps. illus. index. ISBN 9781465473844. $30.
From Marathon to Iwo Jima, from the expected (Agincourt, Stalingrad) to the less familiar (Hansando, Ain Jalut), this compilation of photos, artwork, maps, battle plans, and armor, among others, briefly covers smaller engagements and “in detail” looks at larger conflicts. Even those uninterested in the study of war will be riveted by the examples here of human ingenuity, courage, waste, and folly. (Xpress Reviews, 1/25/19)

Jones, Dan & Marina Amaral. The Color of Time: A New History of the World; 1850–1960. Pegasus. 432p. photos. index. ISBN 9781643130545. $39.95.
The subtitle barely exaggerates: this is history in a new light. Artist Amaral has ­subtly colorized 200 historical photographs, while historian and journalist Jones (Magna Carta; The Templars) provides informative context for each. Suddenly these scenes—some familiar, others obscure—look, well, like reality. Literally bringing history out of the shadows, this work will change readers’ perceptions of the past.

Secrets, Leaks & Scandals. 2 vols. Salem. (Defining Documents in American History). 800p. ed. by Michael Shally-Jensen. photos. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781682176986. $295.
Primary sources reveal misrepresentation, betrayal, corruption, and other ethical failures from 1797 to 2018. The 70-plus documents, compiled by editor and author Shally-Jensen, illluminate the Chennault Affair, Watergate, My Lai, Wikileaks, and more. Context and analysis elucidate documents (sometimes abridged). Tension between security and transparency continues as examining these intriguing cases clarifies risks and costs.

Vile, John R. The American Flag: An Encyclopedia of the Stars and Stripes in U.S. History, Culture, and Law. ABC-CLIO. 398p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781440857881. $94 ; ebk. ISBN 9781440857898.
Vile (dean, political science, Univ. Honors Coll., Middle Tennessee State Univ.) masterfully explains the ubiquity and importance of the flag in our culture and daily lives. Tackling everything from flag etiquette to artistic depictions of the flag in poems, speeches, and music, this accumulation of fascinating facts illuminates many of our traditions. Anyone with an interest in U.S. history, patriotic symbols, or the study of flags will be mesmerized. (LJ 2/19)



Atlas of the 2016 Elections. Rowman & Littlefield. 280p. ed. by Robert H. Watrel & others. maps. index. ISBN 9781538104224. $95; ebk. ISBN 9781538104231.
Future generations will be discussing the contentious 2016 presidential election for years to come; congressional, state, and local elections are covered here as well. This work is an excellent place to begin an analysis, with 131 figures and 17 tables of astounding quality, along with short, astute essays that interpret the data. Simple to browse and a wonderful source for reports, the book is a bonanza for political junkies and professionals alike. (LJ 7/18)

Hatred of America’s Presidents: Personal Attacks on the White House from Washington to Trump. ABC-CLIO. 420p. ed. by Lori Cox Han. index. ISBN 9781440854361. $94 ; ebk. ISBN 9781440854378.
This thrilling study proves that opposition politics is not a recent phenomenon. Personal enemies, political adversaries, damaging scandals, extreme partisanship, and scathing attacks—no president is spared. Editor Han (political science, Chapman Univ.) weaves together topics such as the role of media, political psychology, and counterstrategies in this entertaining study of the darker side of the U.S. presidency. (LJ 9/1/18)

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Crime, Media, and Popular Culture. 3 vols. Oxford Univ. 2,232p. ed. by Nicole Rafter & Michelle Brown. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780190494674. $595.
Relying on empirical studies and historical reviews of crime-related subjects throughout history, Rafter (emerita, Sch. of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Northeastern Univ.) and Brown (sociology, Univ. of Tennessee) ask, “Which comes first: the media or the crime?” The editors examine the effects of the media on criminology and of criminology on the media. This scholarly treatment of a popular topic will appeal to a wide range of readers. (LJ 5/1/18)



Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions: Faith and Culture Across History. ABC-CLIO. 863p. ed. by Susan de-Gaia. photos. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781440848490. $198 ; ebk. ISBN 9781440848506.
With this timely encyclopedia, editor de-Gaia (philosophy & religion, Central Michigan Univ.) fills in the gaps concerning the long-overlooked input of women to the religions of the world. The work also serves as an antidote to the misogyny common in most world religions. A diverse range of scholars have contributed, including academics, religious leaders, and museum directors. A comprehensive and overdue addition to the topic. (LJ 3/19)



Bainbridge, David. Stripped Bare: The Art of Animal Anatomy. Princeton Univ. 256p. illus. index. ISBN 9780691181424. $29.95.
Art, science, and intellectual history—this book explores how humans have conceptualized and represented vertebrates from antiquity to today. Bainbridge (univ. clinical veterinary anatomist, Univ. of Cambridge) includes a variety of images; all, whether black and white or full color, are stunning. The earliest examples (an Etruscan sheep’s liver, a New Mexico petroglyph) are just as revelatory as today’s computer-aided imagery. Commentary examines the aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, and philosophical contexts.

Barnes-Svarney, Patricia & Thomas E. Svarney. The Handy Forensic Science Answer Book: Reading Clues at the Crime Scene, Crime Lab and in Court. Visible Ink. 400p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781578596218. pap. $21.95; ebk. ISBN 9781578596812.
Focusing on the science behind criminology, this user-friendly title from these married authors (The Handy Anatomy Answer Book; The Handy Nutrition Answer Book) is loaded with fun facts. Well-phrased questions are followed by succinct answers that explain the history of forensic science, controversies, media portrayals, and more. ( LJ 9/15/18)

Engel, Michael S. Innumerable Insects: The Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth. Sterling. 232p. illus. index. ISBN 9781454923237. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781454933526.
The Smithsonian Institution estimates that for every human on the planet, there are about 200 million insects. Engel, a research affiliate at the American Museum of Natural History, here examines the identification and classification of insects, along with habitat, behaviors, and life cycles. Breathtaking images chosen from the museum’s rare book collections highlight diversity and specialized adaptations. Short bios of notable scientists and insect illustrators are interspersed with small and larger-than-life renderings of beetles, bed bugs, and butterflies. ( LJ Winter 2018)

Faidley, Warren (text & photos). Wicked Weather: : A Visual Essay of Extreme Storms. Amherst Media. 128p. index. ISBN 9781682033463. pap. $24.95.
Lightning, tornadoes, fires, and ice are four of the extreme situations included in this slender collection of up-close, personal, and heart-stopping photos. For over 30 years, Faidley has sought to capture the “perfect image in the midst of total chaos” and here gathers amazing shots of dust storms, twisters touching down, and a roadway submerged almost to the traffic lights after Hurricane Katrina. Succinct captions set the scene and occasionally include safety tips, photographic comments, or wry asides. The final images feature rainbows, an uplifting conclusion.

Howell, Catherine Herbert. The Splendor of Birds: Art and Photographs from National Geographic. National Geographic. 512p. illus. index. ISBN 9781426219672. $75.
Commemorating the Year of the Bird (2018) and marking the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States, this book from Howell ( National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America) boasts stunning photographs and drawings from the archives of National Geographic over the past 130 years. Many of the images were captured in remote locations under risky conditions. As much a work of art as a look at science and nature, this guide raises awareness of the numerous challenges faced by birds and celebrates the beauty of the avian world and its relationship with humanity. (LJ Winter 2018)


Black Power Encyclopedia: From “Black Is Beautiful” to Urban Uprisings.  2 vols. Greenwood. 917p. ed. by Akinyele Umoja & others. photos. index. ISBN 9781440840067. $189; ebk. ISBN 9781440840074.
Addressing the major personalities, events, organizations, ideologies, themes, trends, and impacts of Black Power, Umoja (African American studies, Georgia State Univ.), Karin L. Stanford (political science & Africana studies, California State Univ., Northridge), and historian Jasmin A. Young provide an in-depth look at one of the most controversial, influential, and fascinating movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Excerpts from multiple primary sources lend authenticity, authority, and gravitas. Indispensable for anyone with an interest in African American studies, American cultural studies, or the study of race. (LJ 11/1/18)

Dolan, Deborah. A Research Guide to Psychology: Print and Electronic Sources. Rowman & Littlefield. 200p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781442276017. $100.
This eagerly awaited, comprehensive research how-to updates the similarly titled 1982 Raymond G. McInnis guide, with parts relevant or adaptable to other disciplines. Dolan (library svcs. & subject specialist for psychology, Hofstra Univ.) explores many topics: research problems and solutions, journal articles and annuals, directories and organizations, style guides, and more. The strictly academic focus bypasses popular literature, speaking instead to faculty and undergraduates, clinicians, and policymakers.

The Encyclopedia of Racism in American Films. Rowman & Littlefield. (National Cinema). 824p. ed. by Salvador Jimenez Murguía. photos. index. ISBN 9781442269057. $121; ebk. ISBN 9781442269064.
Murguía (sociology, Akita Intl. Univ., Japan) nimbly blends history, sociology, and film studies in this compilation of movies that unpack racism (Get Out; Dear White People) or perpetuate racist attitudes, either explicitly (The Birth of a Nation) or implicitly (Driving Miss Daisy; Forrest Gump). Along the way, readers get a crash course in identifying racist tropes such as the white savior or the magical Negro. Crucial for those examining the film canon through a critical lens. (LJ 8/18)

The Handbook of Research on Black Males: Quantitative, Qualitative, and Multidisciplinary. Michigan State Univ. 688p. ed. by Theodore Ransaw & others. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781611862973. $74.95; ebk. ISBN 9781628953411.
With this challenging but much-needed book, Ransaw (African American & African studies, Michigan State Univ), C.P. Gause (educational leadership & counseling, Southeast Missouri State), and Richard Majors (Univ. of Colorado–Colorado Springs) emphatically advance studies on the black male experience in America. Intended to serve as a starting point for discussion, the work looks back at history; explores topics such as health, education, and the criminal and social justice systems; and identifies future initiatives and programs for developing a basic framework to improve the lives of black men. Thought provoking and vital. (LJ 3/19)

Misogyny in American Culture: Causes, Trends, and Solutions. 2 vols. Greenwood. 870p. ed. by Letizia Guglielmo. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781440853814. $198; ebk. ISBN 9781440853821.  Defining misogyny as the silencing of women’s voices and the restriction of women’s autonomy via hatred, bias, and discrimination, editor Guglielmo (English, interdisciplinary studies, coordinator, Gender and Women’s Studies Program, Kennesaw State Univ.) examines advertising, beauty and fashion, marriage, science, health, the entertainment industry, and politics, among many more subjects. The relevant, accessible, and balanced articles demonstrate that it is possible to present hot-button topics in an evenhanded manner. (LJ 12/18)

Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City. Univ. of Georgia. 368p. ed. by Neil Smith & Don Mitchell. photos. maps. notes. index. ISBN 9780820352817. $94.95; ebk. ISBN 9780820352824.
Editors Smith (formerly, geography and anthropology, Graduate Ctr., CUNY; deceased) and Mitchell (emeritus, geography, Syracuse Univ.) reveal how a long history of civil unrest has shaped New York City and its geography as much as, if not more than, politics, economic growth, or urban development. The writing is first-rate, with ample illustrations and many contemporary and historical images. Consisting of 19 chapters of events and movements arranged chronologically, the volume concludes with a short afterword on more recent demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street. Fast paced and fascinating, like the city it profiles. (LJ 4/15/18)



History of the World Map by Map.  DK. 440p. maps. illus. index. ISBN 9781465475855. $50.
How did Napoleon lose? Where did African kingdoms exist circa 1000 CE? What territory was overtaken by Mongol conquests? Such wide-ranging and fascinating questions arise and are answered in this cartographic feast, with numerous clear and detailed graphics. (LJ 11/15/18)

Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. 4 vols. Canadian Geographic. 322p. maps. photos. ISBN 9780986751622. $99.
This set represents a moving and beautiful record of the culture, oppression, and persistence of Canada’s Native peoples. Besides a general volume (with excellent information on languages), three large-format works cover First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples via history, socio­cultural traditions, writing, maps, cultural expression, education, economics, research, health, housing, environment, and geopolitics. Vibrant color photos show artifacts, sites, and individuals. A forward-looking focus on justice, education of the non-Indigenous, first-person accounts, and Indigenous perspectives make this title groundbreaking. (Xpress Reviews, 1/25/19)

Mason, Betsy & Greg Miller. All over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey. National Geographic. 320p. illus. maps. index. ISBN 9781426219726. $50.
Those who pick up this most unusual atlas will find secret military maps of Japan captured by U.S. forces after World War II, “olfactory snapshots of cities,” and, for Game of Thrones fans, a map of ­Westeros. More than that, though, readers will be awed at the power of maps—and perhaps come away with a desire to follow in journalists and novice cartographers Mason’s and Miller’s footsteps. (LJ Winter 2018)

Ultimate Eats: The World’s Top 500 Food Experiences...Ranked. Lonely Planet. 318p. photos. index. ISBN 9781787014220. $30.
In this attractive and imaginative guide, the writers, bloggers, and other staffers of Lonely Planet rank the top 500 global culinary experiences. Each entry is selected for taste, cultural importance, and ambience. Among the delicious highlights are dim sum in Hong Kong, doro wat in Ethiopia, caviar in Moscow, and ­beignets in New Orleans. A must for travelers, foodies, or anyone looking to probe the rich variety of world cuisines. (LJ Winter 2018)

  Mahnaz Dar (MD) is Reference & Professional Reading Editor, LJ & School Library Journal; Maggie Knapp (MK) is a Librarian, Trinity Valley School, Fort Worth, TX; Patricia Lothrop (PL) retired from teaching at St. George’s School, Newport, RI; Dave Pugl (DP) is a Librarian, Ela Area Public Library, Lake Zurich, IL; Laurie Selwyn (LS) formerly worked at the Grayson County Law Library, Sherman, TX; and Rob Tench (RT) is a Librarian, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA



Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing