TEXTBOOKS (both print and electronic) are one of the most important sources of information for students. In learning to use textbooks effectively, the student establishes the groundwork for using all other carriers of information.

In spite of the assumptions of instructors and students themselves, no one is born knowing the format, contents and use of textbooks. This note summarizes the important parts of typical textbooks and ways to use them to advantage.

Table of Contents

As its name states, the Table of Contents outlines the subjects and topics discussed in the book. It serves as a finding aid, giving chapter and basic page information. 


The Preface sets the stage for the book. It may include a rationale or purpose, the anticipated use, limitations, scope and acknowledgment of those who helped in its production. In some ways it is analogous to an article abstract as it provides clues as to what the entire book is about.


A chapter is a section of a book, usually organized around a topic or issue. Each chapter is organized with an introduction, body and summary, much as a book is. There may be footnotes or references (see these topics). Some books have editors for the entire book and the chapters may be by separate authors. Chapters are sometimes grouped around a topic or may be paired in opposing viewpoints.  The organization of the book, as set out in the table of contents, helps in selecting chapters when the whole book is not of interest.


A note at the bottom of the page or end of chapter or book with information about the source of a reference or a comment about the content. Footnotes are used less often in newer books than in older ones. Endnotes are used.  Reading footnotes and endnotes often provides parenthetical but very useful information.  


The sources of data or information used in writing the document are the references. The sources may be numbered in the body of the writing, or may be indicated by a name and date (eg Jones, 1993). The number or the author/date notation refers the reader to the citation in the footnotes, endnotes or to the bibliography (literature cited) at the end of the chapter or near the end of the book. References are one of the most valuable parts of a book. They give credit where it is due and are good sources of further information.

Further Reading

The author may provide a list of related readings not necessarily referred to in the text. The lists of citations provided are valuable in finding further information. Explore the textbook beyond the text in the body of the book. Sometimes these are in the appendices. An increasing number of books include lists of related websites.


Sometimes important supplementary, statistical or explanatory information is found in the appendices at the end of the chapter or near the end of the book. These are usually too lengthy or awkward to fit in the body of the chapter. Names and addresses of people and organizations are one type of appendix.


The discipline specific, unusual, or difficult terms used in the book may be defined in a glossary near the end of the book. The discipline specific meaning of words with multiple meanings and uses are found here.


One or more indexes may appear at the end of the book. Topic indexes are most common. Author or person indexes are also used in textbooks. Indexes are more specific than tables of contents. Using a book index is a way to understand the underlying principles in other indexes such as periodical indexes and databases.