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Find Background Information

Background Information Sources

  • Background information sources can help you narrow down your topic.
  • They will define terms you may not be familiar with.
  • They will provide a list of references that can help you to further explore your topics.
  • The experts who wrote the entries may even provide their contact information

Finding Background Information Sources

Use the library system to locate good background sources.  For example a search like "Psychology" AND "Dictionary" or "Psychology" AND "Encyclopedia" will give you a listof those sources.

Here are two links to Encyclopedias and Dictionaries:



Some Background Info Strategies

Here are two strategies:

Plan A:

  1. Decide what industry, field, or category principally engages with one element of the information you need to find out about. For instance, for extraterrestrial life, you might need either astronomy or biology.
  2. From the Libraries Homepage select the Research Guides link. Choose a Research Guide that lists resources for that field. Look for a "Background Information" tab. That's where subject encyclopedias are usually listed.  If a title is hyperlinked, that means it's an online resource. If it isn't, it's print resource in the library. NOTE: Some publishers use "encyclopedia" and "dictionary" interchangeably; in this case, a "dictionary" might have long entries like an encyclopedia.

Plan B:

If you couldn't find an encylopedia or dictionary in the Research Guide for your field:

  1. In Holmes  in the first Keyword Search box, type a word that represents the field (e.g. "engineering" or "sports")
  2. In the second keyword search box, type "encyclopedia." Click "search." Note down 2 titles and their call numbers and locations. If a resource is available online, go ahead and click on "Available Onlilne" and then click on "connect to this resource."

Example Titles

  • Dictionary of Astronomy, 2nd Ed. (Oxford Reference Online)
  • Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture
  • Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management
  • Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance

In an online encyclopedia, find a search bar. Try variations on key words from your topic until you begin to get results that look relevant. Click on a relevant entry and skim it. As you skim, look for:

  • key technical terms related to your topic
  • acronyms
  • major concepts
  • names of major researchers

In short, you'll be looking for words you can use in your searches--the words of experts.

Note the following features about information found in subject-specific encyclopedias:

  • Experts write the articles and are often identified as the authors.
  • The articles often explain technical terms.
  • There is likely to be a bibliography at the end of the article. The bibliography will consist of a list of books and articles that the expert author recommends as centrally important. Use this list as a research tool.
  • Articles in subject encyclopedias do not tend to break new ground themselves; they merely summarize and report on major trends, debates, and ideas in a research area.  If your assignment focuses on finding new research (such as a literature review), encyclopedias are a good resource for background information only, not a source.

Additionally, background information may be found in introductions to books, textbooks, Wikipedia, or even your own class notes! Check with your instructor about what constitutes background information, and when it is necessary to cite these resources as sources.

Subject Guide

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Kwasi Sarkodie-Mensah
312 O'Neill Library
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
617 552 4465