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Research Fundamentals: Do Background Research

What do I need to know?

Scholarly research is about building on the ideas and research of others and integrating these ideas with your own. Before you can begin writing - or even researching in earnest - you must take time to review your topic and information related to it.

Taking time to do background research has many benefits:

  1. You can tell whether your topic is researchable;
  2. You can determine whether your topic is too broad or too narrow;
  3. You can discover related terms, synonyms, and even sources you might use for your research.

Ask Questions

As you look at background information sources, consider questions related to your topic - what do you need to know in order to write knowledgeably on this topic?

Questions can help you narrow your focus and help you identify the information sources you might want to seek out.

  • WHO - Who are the experts? Who is impacted? Consider demographics associated with your topic: for example, can you limit your research to a particular age group or population?
  • WHAT - What other terms are associated with this topic? What do we know? What don't we know?
  • WHEN - When has this topic been most important? Consider limiting your topic to a specific timeframe.
  • WHY - Why is this topic important or interesting?
  • WHERE - Where does this topic have the most relevance? Consider whether you should limit your research to a specific place, whether that be a country, a state, or a city.
  • HOW - How does this topic impact or affect us - negatively or positively? Consider qualifications such as effects, causes, benefits, impact, etc.

You can then turn to reference sources -- dictionaries, encyclopedias, and books written for a general audience -- to start to answer these questions.

Reference Sources

Use reference sources for background reading

Reference information sources can be helpful when beginning the research process. They can give you a working knowledge of your chosen subject area. They allow you to:

  • Gain a broad and general understanding of the topic.
  • Learn important names, key facts, issues and debates, and answers to questions.
  • Get familiar with the vocabulary related to the topic so you can effectively search the scholarly literature..

Where to find reference sources

The Library has access to hundreds of reference sources, both in print and online. You can access the online titles in the A-Z List of Databases here.

There are also some reference sources freely available on the Web (such as Wikipedia). Just be sure to evaluate these the way you would any other source before basing your research on them.

Types of reference sources

There are many different kinds of reference information sources, and each is useful for finding a certain type of information.


Screenshot of part of a page of an online, subject-specific dictionary. The entry being displayed is "glass ceiling."

  • Provide word definitions and other information about words. There are many other types of dictionaries. 
    • A bilingual dictionary translations from one language to another.
    • A thesaurus contains synonyms, and often antonyms, for words.
    • An etymological dictionary contains historical word origins.
    • A subject dictionary is a good source for longer and more in-depth definitions using the vocabulary of a particular area of study.


Screenshot of part of the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. The entry is "ethnobotany."

  • Provide brief articles explaining a topic. There are general encyclopedias like Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. There are also subject-specific encyclopedias that provide detailed, advanced and technical content in a particular area of study.


Screenshot of part of a page of an atlas, showing a map and some text. The map is labeled "The Perfume Routes of Antiquity" and is too small to read anything else.

  • Contain maps that associate different types of data (e.g., populations, politics, etc.) with geography. There are different types of maps available.
    • Political maps show countries, states or provinces, counties, cities, towns, and villages.
    • Road maps show streets, roads, and highways.
    • Topographical maps show the lay of the land.
    • Demographic maps show population statistics.
    • Historical maps compare geographical and political information across eras.


Screenshot of part of a page of a gazetteer.

  • Contain geographical information (often using latitude and longitude coordinates) that is cross-referenced with demographic, political, historical, and other kinds of information. Gazetteers may be included in atlases but there are also standalone gazetteers that do not contain maps.


Screenshot of part of a page of The Nonprofit Almanac 2012. The text is cut off but it seems to explain the scope, sources, and limitations of the data in the chapter.

  • Annual publications that contain time sensitive information about geography and politics, economic data, astronomical data, world records, tides, weather, statistics, etc.


Screenshot of part of a page of a directory. It has the name of a company, address, and other contact information.

  • Contain contact information for persons, organizations or companies. They may also contain descriptions of those entities.     
  • Some kinds of directories contain "how to locate" information for data or documents.

Biographical Resources

  • Screenshot of part of a page from Biography Resource Center. The entry is on Ben Carson and gives his basic personal and career information. The contents menu is on the left of the text about the person.Contain information about the lives and accomplishments of notable people in various fields of achievement or areas of study. 


Screenshot of part of the Manual of Psychosocial Rehabilitation. This page is about symptom rating scales.

  • Contain technical how-to information on everything from operating a device to performing a sophisticated task, such as repairing a car.         

Handbooks and Guides

Screenshot of a page in The Neuropsychology Handbook.

  • Contain detailed, advanced information about a particular subject area. This can include facts about a subject or instructions for operating a device or completing a procedure.

Guides to the Literature and Annotated Bibliographies

Screenshot of the cover of Libraries and Information in the Arab World: An Annotated Bibliography.

  • List and describe information sources (e.g., books, articles, etc.) in a particular subject area.
  • They may be exhaustive (include everything) or selective.
  • Bibliographies of web resources are sometimes called Internet bibliographies or pathfinders.

Do not cite reference information sources

You do not normally cite reference materials, such as dictionaries or encyclopedias, or textbooks, because they do not contain original research. They are what are called tertiary sources (more on that later), which means they are typically a condensed version of multiple secondary sources, usually aimed at non-scholarly audiences. 

Material in this section is adapted from the Research Skills Tutorial by the Librarians at Empire State College has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


How do I use reference sources?

  • Search by general topics (“genetically modified foods”) and see what types of information come up.
  • Most reference articles, whether print or online, will include a short bibliography that can get your research started.

Where do I find print reference sources?

  • Search the library catalog for a general topic, such as “African American” and “encyclopedia”
  • You can also look at the subject-based research guides to see if a librarian has recommended a specific online or print place to start your research.
  • Reference books are shelved in a special area of the library. If you need help locating one, head to the reference desk.

Where do I find online reference sources?

Online reference sources are usually made up of articles from academic dictionaries and encyclopedias. Start at the reference database page to find different library sources. Here are a couple of options to help you get started:

  • Credo Reference and Gale eBooks provide definitions of different academic subjects and concepts.
  • CQ Researcher and Issues & Controversies both discuss current events, with lots of data and background information.
  • Even looking at a Wikipedia article will get you a sense of the state of the subject: basic facts and current developments.
  • There are other specialty reference sources that you can use, depending on your topic. Skim through the descriptions of the databases listed on that page to find the best match.


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