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Research Path

How can background information help?

See the big picture

An encyclopedia or other reference source can be a good starting point for learning about major concepts on a broad topic. Lengthy articles can outline the subdivisions of a topic, give different perspectives, and report recent trends or scholarship.

Get the facts

Important names, dates, places etc… are often mentioned in background sources.

Learn the lingo

Look for key terms, terminology, and definitions. Keep these terms in mind when you begin searching for your topic in online databases or the web. 

Check out the author

Background sources are often written by experts; you may want to look for other works by the same author for your topic.

Locate additional sources

Many sources will include a list of additional readings or a bibliography. These references are often the most important works on a topic.

Image source:Todd Fong

"Hot topics" in the news

For background information on "hot topics" in the news, try:

CQ Researcher: A good starting point on current news including science, education, politics and economics. 
Issues and Controversies: From Facts on File, find summaries on current issues and controversies in political, economic, social and scientific topics.




Encyclopedias are one of the most common sources of background information. There are both general and subject encyclopedias:

  • Use Encyclopedia Britannica for a general, overall encyclopedia.
  • Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL) is an encyclopedia database. You can search all of GVRL at once or you can search through encyclopedias by subject. 
  • SAGE is an outstanging encylodedia resource offering information on diverse topics and subjects. 

Here are a few examples from SAGE and GVRL that Lemieux Library offers:


Dictionaries can be a good source for defining terminology, and like encyclopedias, can be general or specific. A general online souce is the Oxford English Dictionary

Examples of subject dictionaries:

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Coordinator, Teaching & Learning

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Yen Tran
Lemieux Library Second Floor iDesk
Subjects: Education, Social Work