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Basic Research Guide: Background

English 1000

Background Sources

Before you jump into looking for detailed sources on specific aspects of your topic, it can be very helpful to understand the broader context of your research and to find out in general terms what is known about a topic by doing some background reading. Reading an encyclopedia article or other reference source is a quick way to:

  • familiarize yourself with the basics of the topic: concepts, controversies, time, and place
  • find the names of people who are associated with the topic
  • decode some of the jargon associated with the topic
  • possibly find additional sources using the bibliography of an article or chapter

Background sources are sources your professor does not want you to cite but to use them for foundational knowledge or to narrow your topic.

The most important background sources are encyclopedias and dictionaries. Class textbooks also provide background information.  These are considered tertiary sources.  But they can help lead you to the primary and secondary sources your professor will want you to cite in your paper.

Online Reference Sources

The following are sources that the library subscribes to and you can be sure that chapters and articles have  been edited by experts in the field:

CQ Researcher is a complete source for in-depth, analytical reporting on the most current and controversial issues of the day. Focusing on one topic, each weekly CQ Researcher provides extensive background information and discussion of the pro’s and con’s.

Gale Virtual Reference Library is a database of encyclopedias, almanacs, and specialized reference sources for multidisciplinary research. We have some of the same sources in print in either Ready Reference or Reference stacks on the main floor, in Ellis Library.  Just ask for assistance at the Reference Desk.

Oxford Reference is a searchable database of over 100 reference works covering history, literature, art, religion, philosophy, law, science and many other areas.

Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project based on an openly -editable model. Wikipedia's articles provide links to guide the user to related pages with additional information. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay. The Wikipedia community has developed many policies and guidelines to improve the encyclopedia, however, it is not a formal requirement to be familiar with them before contributing. Warning: Since most anyone can contribute/edit Wikipedia, some entries are of better quality than others.  Still it can be a quick and hence useful source for getting a general idea about a term or a topic.

Reference Books

MERLIN tip: to find specialized encyclopedias, do a keyword search in the UM LIBRARIES CATALOG and add your key word AND encyclopedias

Ex.: religion AND encyclopedias

Video: Using Wikipedia for Academic Research