Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Background Information: Get Started

Encyclopedia Collections

Quick Catalog Search


Search here to find books, articles and more.

Live Chat Help

JavaScript disabled or chat unavailable.

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.  You can locate others in the GU Library Catalog. For help with your research, just stop by the Library Reference Desk or contact me or another Public Services Librarian directly. We would love to help you!

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, background sources and encyclopedias are often the best place to begin research when you don’t know much about your topic. Background sources are excellent for providing the background information previously mentioned.

While general encyclopedias 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 background sources or consult the "Find Reference Sources" page on our website. To find other specialized background sources or encyclopedias, you can

  1. Ask a Public Services 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 background sources 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 on the main floor of the Library.
  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 background sources, keep in mind the following suggestions:

  1. Use the index to the background source or 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 background source 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 source. 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 article in a background source or at the end of an encyclopedia.

My Profile

Profile Photo
Gail Heideman
Dean of Library Services
Office: 203
Phone: 618-664-6609
Social: Twitter Page