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DIY Research Guide: 2. Gather Background Info

Find answers to frequently asked questions.

Understanding Your Topic

Need a little background information to better understand your topic? Try looking at encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference material to get a general overview and clear definitions on your topic. 

Published reference material is often written and evaluated by subject experts, a characteristic that differentiates them from much of Wikipedia.

About These Resources:

General and subject encyclopedias give an overview of a broad range of topics.

Encyclopedia entries can help you define the scope of research on a given topic and give you ideas for a thesis statement or research question.

Searching Reference Material

Most reference material (encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.) generally falls into two categories: general material and subject-specific material.

  • General reference material: If you want a general overview of a particular topic, a general encyclopedia (like Encyclopedia Americana) or dictionary might be your best bet.
  • Subject-specific reference material: If you want more detailed information on a topic or if your topic is more obscure, a subject-specific encyclopedia or dictionary will often have the more in-depth discussion.

Online reference material comes in two basic forms, ebooks and databases. 

  • Ebooks:  Ebooks are stand-alone electronic documents, and many encyclopedias are available in the ebook form.  How does this affect you?  When you are hunting down information, using an ebook encyclopedia often entails searching first for the encyclopedia in a catalog or database (as you would a regular book) and then viewing the ebook to search its contents. 
  • Databases: Many dictionaries and encyclopedias now exist as databases themselves, broken away from the confines of the linear book structure.  Instead of using a catalog or database to find the Ebook and then searching its content, these encyclopedias-turned-databases allow you to jump right into them and begin searching. 

Quick Tips:

You may need to gather background information before you really start developing the key concepts and keywords for you topic (Step 1).  Feel free to work on both steps at the same time.

Don't forget to mine the "References" or "Further Reading" section of encyclopedia entries to discover quality books, articles, and web resources related to your topic.


For most research papers and some research assignments, you do not cite an encyclopedia or dictionary.  You use it only to inform yourself about a topic.  Many instructors do not consider an encyclopedia or dictionary to be the best source of evidence on the complexities of a topic. 

Finding Controversial Topics

Search the Contents of Reference Books

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Reference Universe

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This is an excellent, scholarly alternative to Wikipedia.  It allows you to search back-of-the-book indexes and article titles in thousands of reference books owned by Camden-Carroll Library.  If it is an e-book you can access it.  If it is a print book you can find its call number and then the volume and page numbers for your topic.

The Wikipedia Question

Should you use Wikipedia when you research?

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