Best Reference Works of 2020

The 30+ reference titles honored as the best of 2020 speak to today’s issues and range across arts, literature, health, science, history, and more.

The reference titles honored as the best of 2020 speak to today’s issues—no mean feat, considering that the world looks remarkably different now than it did when these texts were published. As a nation, we’re still grappling with what unfolded at the Capitol on January 6; readers may find some context in Violence in American Society. While the 2020 elections are behind us, issues such as gerrymandering and voter suppression aren’t, and Voting and Political Representation in America will equip patrons eager to inform themselves in anticipation of future elections. And those heartened to see Kamala Harris become the first woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent to be a U.S. vice president will appreciate learning about the achievements of those who came before her in Deborah G. Felder’s The American Women’s Almanac; though Harris’s historic moment isn’t captured in this book, as it went to press before the November election, readers can look forward to the next edition, which will hopefully include a profile of her.

Speaking of history, this list spotlights a variety of offerings that look at the past—many with an inclusive lens. Imperial China takes a deep dive into centuries of Chinese history, something many Americans study only briefly if at all. And the database Bloomsbury Medieval Studies distinguishes itself for its far more global approach. Finally, Adam Matthew Digital’s Mass Observation Project (1981–2009), which compiles questionnaires from the British public on a variety of issues, reminds users that we’re living through history—today’s letters, emails, and even tweets are tomorrow’s primary sources.

The committee surfaced titles that will allow patrons to decompress and escape, too. The need to socially distance has resulted in many looking to nature. David Sibley’s What It’s Like To Be a Bird will have aspiring ornithologists seeing the world from a bird’s-eye view, while nature lovers wanting to tread a less-traveled path should pick up Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman’s guidebook Grasses, Sedges, Rushes. Finally, don’t forget to check out our lists of the best free resources and databases.



Music Around the World: A Global Encyclopedia. ed. by Andrew R. Martin & Matthew Mihalka. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781610694988.
Bebop, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, yodeling, and Nordic jazz are just a few of the entries in this incredibly sweeping volume on world music. Editors Martin (music, Inver Hills Community Coll., MN) and Mihalka (music, Univ. of Arkansas) are not only thorough but also thoughtful, unpacking the term world music, considering the role of colonialism in how Westerners view music from other parts of the globe, and commissioning local experts to write entries to ensure accuracy and give the book an insider perspective.

The V&A Book of Color in Design. ed. by Tim Travis. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 9780500480274.
Global in reach, this eye-catching sourcebook displays a palette of 55 variants for each of 12 colors, unlocks each hue’s symbolism and history, then showcases its use in strikingly presented objects from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection, meaningfully linking luxe and utilitarian pieces. Travis, a curator at the museum, and 20-plus contributors speak in one illuminating voice, from detailed captions to chapter essays, weaving in literary associations, themes, and revelatory cross-references.

Wilson, Matthew. Symbols in Art: Art Essentials. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 9780500295748.
Comparing and contrasting gorgeous artworks across eras and world cultures, teacher and freelance writer Wilson elucidates 50 recurring symbols in six sets: birds, beasts, bodies, plants, possessions, and land and sky. Included here are European, U.S., Asian, African, and Central American works, from prehistory to the 21st century. Resplendent images often disclose magnified details. A brief “key artworks” list follows each short essay, as well as a final glossary, booklist, and index, encouraging further research.



Stevenson, Tom. The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. ed. by Orsi Szentkiralyi. National Geographic. ISBN 9781426221415.
Updating this work for the first time in a decade, Stevenson (Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine) explores the ins and outs of wine, from production to consumption. Though the author guides readers through well-known wines by region, he doesn’t stop there—he also carefully considers everything from soil to climate. Both wine connoisseurs and those who can’t tell a malbec from a merlot will find this lavishly illustrated encyclopedia deeply satisfying.



Dementia Handbook & Resource Guide. Grey House. ISBN 9781642654707.
This handy one-stop source compiles current, widely scattered information on dementia for patients, caregivers, and medical professionals. International in scope and accessible to general readers, the title includes statistics, an attitude survey, and case studies. An extremely thorough section detailing 23 different kinds of dementia discusses prevalence and future expectations for patients, and offers valuable lists of publications, government agencies, support groups, hotlines, and websites.

Principles of Anatomy. ed. by Richard M. Renneboog. Salem. ISBN 9781642653892.
With jargon-free language and small but distinct illustrations, Renneboog (editor, Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues) and contributors in the field of health science approach medical issues from an anatomical perspective. Entries taking on everything from organs, cellular components, and people to disease, medical care, and social issues deftly illustrate the link between our bodies and our world.



Bartrop, Paul. R. & Eve E. Grimm. Children of the Holocaust. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440868528.
Genocide scholar Bartrop and lawyer Grimm explore the devastating fate of children during the Holocaust, in this wrenching consideration of selected child sufferers and survivors; perpetrators and protectors; and relevant organizations and actions. Ten primary source documents, from personal accounts to official Nazi statements, supplement more than 125 entries. Often chilling, often inexpressibly moving, this volume offers insights into history, morality, politics, and human nature.

Black, Jeremy. A History of the Second World War in 100 Maps. Univ. of Chicago. ISBN 9780226755243.
Featuring 100 maps from the collections of the British Library and other sources, this work by Black (history, Univ. of Exeter) demonstrates how essential maps were during World War II. From the simple to the elaborate to the downright artistic, these selections were used for strategic, tactical, and even propaganda purposes. Beautifully laid out and well organized, the book also illustrates developments in cartography during the war, including improvements in aerial photography and the use of color and infrared film.

Felder, Deborah G. The American Women’s Almanac: 500 Years of Making History. Visible Ink. ISBN 9781578596362.
With this much-needed counter to textbooks and encyclopedias that favor the achievements of men, Felder (The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time) honors the often overlooked contributions of more than 350 women throughout American history, among them Abigail Adams, Sacagawea, Shirley Chisholm, and Amy Tan. Spanning from the 16th century to the present, the work covers important historical milestones such as the Seneca Falls Convention and the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Hobhouse, Penelope & Ambrea Edwards. The Story of Gardening. Princeton Architectural. ISBN 9781616899196.
Internationally lauded garden designer Hobhouse (Color in Your Garden) updates her 2002 work, with garden historian Edwards (The Story of the English Garden). Organized geographically, then chronologically, this pithy resource explores notable gardens as sources of food and medicine, beauty, and art. Sumptuous illustrations and photographs let readers meander down delightful visual paths or plow into focused chapters on topics such as Islamic, Chinese, and Italian Renaissance gardening, as well as visions of the future.

Imperial China: The Definitive Visual History. DK. ISBN 9780744020472.
DK celebrates the sweeping richness of Chinese civilization, dynastic achievements, and innovations, among them money, rice, writing, literature, silk, porcelain, philosophy, arts, and technologies. As rulers rise and fall, cultural contributions multiply and music, the zodiac, medicine, governance, religion, gardens, and more are explored. Scattered liberally, brief quotations from historical, philosophical, and literary sources provide authentic voices. Women are a focus whenever possible. Time lines and luminous images lure readers forward through centuries of creation and conflict.



Cripps, Lucy. Actually, the Comma Goes Here: A Practical Guide to Punctuation. Rockridge. ISBN 9781647399221.
Instructor Cripps organizes her guide to punctuation by mark, from the most common (the period) to the least (the slash). Brief and to the point, the volume clearly explains seemingly daunting topics such as restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Cripps infuses her text with whimsy and even sarcasm; her suggestions on how to respond to grammar snobs will elicit giggles. An invaluable and fun resource for aspiring writers.

Kern, Jara. Infographic Guide to Grammar: A Visual Reference for Everything You Need To Know. Adams Media: S. & S. ISBN 9781507212387.
How do you make subjects and verbs agree? And what’s the difference between who and whom—and why does it matter? Well aware that English grammar can be overwhelmingly complex, Kern (The Infographic Guide to American Government) makes the rules easier to understand. Relying on colorful infographics and charts, she breaks down parts of speech, punctuation, and more. Those looking to firm up their grasp of grammar, especially English language learners, will be delighted.



Hillstrom, Laurie Collier. Family Separation and the U.S.–Mexico Border Crisis. ABC-CLIO. (21st-Century Turning Points). ISBN 9781440876615.
With this timely, highly charged, but dispassionate overview of the separation of children and parents emigrating from Mexico to the United States, Hillstrom (Black Lives Matter: From a Moment to a Movement) cites views of pro- as well as anti-immigration advocates. However, the evidence paints a picture of cruelty, bigotry, physical and psychological harm, human rights violations, and damage. To understand this period, and the effects of nativist, white-supremacist movements, this wide-ranging account offers essential background and an objective, substantiated perspective.

Voting and Political Representation in America: Issues and Trends. ed. by Mark P. Jones. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440860843.
Arguably urgent, scrupulously neutral, wide-ranging, and clearly written, these volumes, edited by Jones (political science, Rice Univ.), with entries by 150-plus contributors, authoritatively explain, and describe serious issues with, U.S. systems of voting, from local to presidential. The coverage, both historical and analytical, is broad, including such of-the-moment issues as voter fraud and voter suppression, the role of the Electoral College, and racial gerrymandering.



Christianity: A Historical Atlas. ed. by Alec Ryrie. Belknap: Harvard Univ. ISBN 9780674242357.
With more than 100 maps and illustrations, this atlas tells the story of Christianity through its geography, beginning with its origins in Judea and examining its growth up to modern times. Ryrie (history of Christianity, Durham Univ.) charts important developments throughout Christianity, such as the formation of monastic orders, the Great Schism of 1054, the Crusades, and the Reformation. A stirring visual reminder that Christianity is a religion of movement and change.

The Islam Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. DK. ISBN 9781465491480.
More comprehensive than Ahmad Rashid Salim’s Islam Explained or Nile Green’s Global Islam, this superbly designed book chronicles Muhammad’s life; outlines the Qur’an, the sunna, and the Five Pillars; and traces the religion’s development through the golden age of arts and sciences, “reform and revival” (1527–1979), and Islam today, from the 1970s on. Colorful, captioned illustrations shed light on principles, history, culture, and issues such as women’s rights and extremism, with a directory, a glossary, an index, and the usual eye-grabbing DK graphics.



Feeding the World Well: A Framework for Ethical Food Systems. ed. by Alan M. Goldberg. Johns Hopkins Univ. ISBN 9781421439341.
In this accessible collection of essays edited by Goldberg (principal, Global Food Ethics Project, Johns Hopkins Univ.), expert voices—from academia, nongovernmental organizations, government, and industry—address the complex global challenges of production, costs, and consumption. Key elements of the food system (climate, biotechnology, etc.) are viewed in a moral framework: the obligation to provide sustenance in an environment of abundance. This is an essential reference for designing values-aligned (sustainable and ethical) new food models in a changing world.

LGBTQ Health Research: Theory, Methods, Practice. ed. by Ron Stall & others. Johns Hopkins Univ. ISBN 9781421438788.
Focusing on health research theory, methods, and practices while emphasizing respectfulness, ethical behavior, and sensitive approaches to research subjects, this title, edited by a team of academics in health sciences, will be a useful aid to researchers designing health research methodology and implementing research projects. Discussions center on language ambiguity, project design issues, participant selection, best practices, and intervention development. Signed, well-written, eminently readable chapters include clarifying case studies, charts, and diagrams.

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Higher Education. ed. by Miriam E. David & Marilyn J. Amey. SAGE. ISBN 9781473942912.
David (education, emerita, Univ. Coll. London) and Amey (educational administration, Michigan State Univ.) take a global approach, presenting today’s universities as competitive, entrepreneurial, expanding, and evolving. Entries address fundamentals but also burning issues, such as uncertainties of employment, the inclusion of disadvantaged groups, and intersectionality. Interactions between the academy and the world, including expected socioeconomic impacts, permeate the volumes. Remarkably thorough, both theoretical and practical, this work offers inspiration for ongoing inquiry.

Violence in American Society: An Encyclopedia of Trends, Problems, and Perspectives. ed. by Chris Richardson. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440854675.
Asserting that violence “has assumed uniquely American characteristics over the last few centuries,” Richardson (communication studies, Young Harris Coll., GA) considers current issues such as high rates of gun ownership among Americans, violent Hollywood films, and the U.S. government’s huge military budget. With detailed entries on everything from animal cruelty to youth violence, this authoritative work is enhanced with important primary sources including legal rulings, presidential speeches, and congressional testimony.

Williams, Victoria R. Indigenous Peoples: An Encyclopedia of Culture, History, and Threats to Survival. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440861178.
Greeks are Indigenous; so are the 100 or so Onge and the Roma. In this impressive work, Williams (Celebrating Life Customs Around the World) makes clear the challenges of defining and classifying the more than 370 million Indigenous people who live around the globe and the many issues confronting them: health care and education, precarious landownership, fishing and hunting access, preservation of language and culture, physical and psychological safety, environmental vulnerabilities, and political/socioeconomic status.



Brown, Lauren & Ted Elliman. Grasses, Sedges, Rushes: An Identification Guide. Yale Univ. ISBN 9780300236774.
Dazzling line drawings, in-depth text descriptions, and graceful photographs characterize this classic study of 141 plant species in the Northeast. Brown (Weeds in Winter) and Elliman (Wildflowers of New England) go to painstaking lengths to identify and differentiate among the distinctive features of the plants. This practical, accessible work is designed for the lay reader; after poring through it, even newcomers will feel like experts.

McAlister, Erica. The Inside Out of Flies. Firefly. ISBN 9780228102878.
If anyone could elevate the fly’s image, it is McAlister (curator of Diptera, Natural History Museum, London), who sets out to right the insect’s “incredibly poor PR” with taxonomic discussion, anatomy lessons, flight mechanics, and more. Photos, illustrations, and archival drawings range from icky to stunning and minutely detailed. The science-oriented writing is meticulous yet never dull, and occasionally amusing. If readers are a bit slower to reach for the swatter, McAlister has done her job.

McGee, Harold. Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells. Penguin Pr. ISBN 9781594203954.
McGee, who’s renowned for writing on culinary science, plunges headfirst into olfaction. Part chemistry, part natural history, with hints of memoir, this global, quirky, and impeccably researched ready reference work conveys his discoveries in fascinating detail and analytical but evocative prose, ranging from volatile molecules to prehistory (why did humans start cooking food?) to the everyday (why do some odors evoke others?) to the arcane (the link between sauvignon blanc and cat pee).

Sibley, David Allen. What It’s Like To Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why. Knopf. ISBN 9780307957894.
For readers who wonder why pigeons bob their heads or how blue jays don’t deafen themselves with their loud calls, this is the perfect book. Covering 96 common species, ornithologist Sibley goes beyond the traditional field guide, offering a beautiful, inspiring, and deeply informative testament to the complexity and intelligence of birds. Sibley’s outstanding paintings and drawings complement the excellent text.



Brown, Christopher C. Mastering United States Government Information: Sources and Services.. Libraries Unlimited. ISBN 9781440872501.
Democracy relies on access to government documents, but title and agency name changes, dead URLs, and obsolete formats can make that difficult. Recognizing that many government documents are not easily accessible on the internet, Brown (reference librarian & coordinator of government documents, Univ. of Denver) focuses on effective search strategies for formats such as print, microforms, CD, and DVD. Informative, thorough, and useful to a range of readers—in short, an essential reference.

Simon, Phil. Zoom for Dummies. For Dummies. ISBN 9781119742142.
While exact usage numbers remain in question, it is undisputed that hundreds of millions of people around the world meet on Zoom every day. Zoom coach and trainer Simon (Reimagining Collaboration) leaps to the aid of participant newbies and those wanting to hone their hosting skills. Helpful step-by-step instructions address both free and paid products, with bullet points, screenshots for additional guidance, and tips and warnings in the margins.

Springer, Paul J. Cyber Warfare: A Documentary and Reference Guide. Greenwood. ISBN 9781440872785.
With this convenient gathering of 85 primary sources, Springer (comparative military studies, U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff Coll.) offers nonspecialists clear, pertinent analysis and essential information, such as definitions and relevant sidelights on specific cyber-espionage campaigns, worms, viruses, distributed denial of service (DDoS), and other hacks. Critical analysis paragraphs are accessible to general readers, providing background and tracing the development of cyber warfare, particularly in military and national security domains but also as it pertains to commercial, intellectual property, and social arenas.



The Encyclopedia of New York. ed. by New York Magazine. Avid Reader: S. & S. ISBN 9781501166952.
This loving homage superbly chronicles the Big Apple’s evolution from a mercantile and manufacturing hub into the country’s cultural, financial, and intellectual center. Entries on everything from acrylic paints to X-rated films emphasize how even the most unlikely creations (yes, Key lime pie) have their origins here. The volume details New York’s creativity, imagination, and resourcefulness, giving readers a window into the city’s heart and soul and serving as a testament to its greatness.

Mars, Roman & Kurt Kohlstedt. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design. Houghton Harcourt. ISBN 9780358126607.
Hosts of the podcast 99% Invisible (on which this book is based), Mars and Kohlstedt share the hidden history and development of cityscape features, focusing on unique structures such as the upside-down traffic light in Syracuse, NY; the Can Opener Bridge in Durham, NC; and the Hyde Park Obelisk in Sydney, Australia. Meticulously researched and endlessly fascinating, this guide is bound to entice trivia fans, urbanites, cityscapers, landscapers, city planners, and architects.

National Geographic Complete National Parks of Europe: 460 Parks, Including Flora and Fauna, Historic Sites, Scenic Hiking Trails, and More. National Geographic. ISBN 9781426220968.
Though many travelers associate Europe with its major cities, this striking guide offers a different side of the continent, showcasing 460 of its national parks. Spotlighted here are lowlands, forests, mountains, coastal beaches, and more; some parks preserve important human heritage sites. Breathtaking photographs will pique readers’ interest and inspire them to explore the beautiful wild spaces of Europe—as soon as that’s safely possible.

USA National Parks: Lands of Wonder. DK. ISBN 9780744024494.
The national park system is one of the United States’ greatest treasures, and this marvelous work captures their majesty with astounding photographs, outstanding graphics, and detailed histories. Covering all 62 parks, the book showcases what makes each one unique, with charts, maps, facts, figures, and suggested activities. Both an armchair travelers’ delight and a refreshing guide to maximize a park experience. 

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


Best Databases 2020

Best Free Resources 2020

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