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Finding Background Information  

Last Updated: Aug 13, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Getting Started

Welcome to our Library guide for finding background information.  It is intended to serve as a starting point as you search for electronic and print background sources.  

Please note that this guide is divided into broad subject areas--General, Humanities, Sciences, and Social Sciences--on the tabs above and into more specific subjects within each broad area.  To begin your research, you'll need to determine which of these areas might include your topic; then you can identify a more specific subject within that area.  Many topics apply to more than one subject, so you may want to explore multiple subjects that relate to your topic.

You won't find all of our electronic or print background sources in this guide.  For a more detailed list of our print reference sources in this area, please consult our print Finding Background Information guide available at the Library Reference Desk or the attached PDF file.  As always, please feel free to stop by the Reference Desk or contact a Public Services Librarian directly for help with your research.

I welcome your feedback on this guide.  If you like it or find a problem with it, please let me know. 

Georgann Kurtz-Shaw


Finding Background Information

When you begin research for a paper or project, you will usually need background information first. This is especially important if you are not very familiar with the subject you are researching or have not decided which aspect of it you want to emphasize. By consulting the types of sources described in this guide, you can find

  • a brief overview of the topic;
  • definitions of terms and jargon in the field;
  • key names, events, and terms related to the topic that may be used later to find information in the online catalog, periodical databases, or other sources;
  • an introductory, select bibliography (i.e., list of suggested sources by scholars or experts in the field).


Because they contain information on almost every subject, encyclopedias are often the best place to begin research when you don’t know much about your topic. Encyclopedias are excellent for providing the background information previously mentioned.

While general encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Americana, and even Wikipedia, are sometimes logical places to begin research, specialized encyclopedias covering your subject area are usually much more useful and reliable. A subject-specialized encyclopedia may cover your topic in more depth than a general encyclopedia and has been written by authorities on the specific subject.


Often a subject may fit into more than one of these areas. Abortion, for example, fits into at least three areas—religion, political science, and biology. Ask a librarian if you are not sure how to categorize your subject. When you have decided which areas to look under, turn to the humanities, social sciences, and sciences sections of this guide for suggested specialized encyclopedias or consult the "Find Reference Sources" page on our website. To find other specialized encyclopedias, you can

  1. Ask a reference librarian for suggestions.
  2. Search the Credo Reference or Sage Reference Online encyclopedia collections or other electronic encyclopedias available on our "Find Reference Sources" webpage at
  3. Scan the shelves around one of the listed encyclopedias that you thought would be helpful, but was not. Or, find out what call numbers correspond to your subject and browse in that area of the reference collection.
  4. Look in the online catalog under your subject or a broader subject followed by the subdivision "Encyclopedias," for example, "Bioethics--Encyclopedias"


For efficient and effective use of encyclopedias, keep in mind the following suggestions:

  1. Use the index to the encyclopedia. This may be a separate volume, or it may be at the beginning or end of the encyclopedia. The index will lead you to all the references to your subject. Many times your topic will be included in the encyclopedia as a subdivision of another broader topic, and therefore will not be in its own alphabetical order. For example, "Mafia" may be a subdivision of "Organized Crime."
  2. Try several terms for your topic because the term you are using may not be the same one used in the encyclopedia. For example, information about "endangered species" may be under "extinction."
  3. Look for bibliographies listing other sources on your topic. Often bibliographies are appended to the end of an encyclopedia article. Other times, references to other sources are included within an encyclopedia article or at the end of an encyclopedia.

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