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Introduction to Research: Humanities and Social Sciences

Background Information

Once you have identified the main topic and keywords for your research, the next step is to find sources of background information. This is especially important if you are unfamiliar with the subject or not sure how to approach your topic.
Background information can be found in textbooks, dictionaries, general and subject-specific encyclopedias to name a few and can give you ....
  • A broad overview of the subject
  • Definitions of the topic
  • An introduction to key issues
  • Names of people who are authorities in the field
  • Major dates and events
  • Lead to bibliographies which provide additional sources of information.

Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

Dictionaries and encyclopedias are a great place to start your research as they are helpful for finding definitions, overviews, background information and basic facts. They may be general or subject specific, in print or online and may provide bibliographical references.

Search Omni, the Library Catalogue

To find encyclopedias or dictionaries on your topic, search Omni by subject or keywords. 

For example, you want to find an encyclopedia or dictionary on World War II - try this keyword boolean search!.

To search subject headings, click on Advanced Search, which allows you to execute more complex searches.

To do this, type in the Library of Congress a subject heading for your subject, e.g. World war, 1939-1945 followed by the word “encyclopedias” or “dictionaries”.


 Consult Subject Guides

Look at our subject guides which list selected online and print reference sources for specific subjects and disciplines. 

Consult General Encyclopedias

General encyclopedias provide information on many topics – some will be more in depth than others but any general encyclopedia will give you information on your chosen subject area. Some frequently used online encyclopedias are the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Consult Subject Specific Encyclopedias

Unlike general encyclopedias which cover a wide range of topics, subject specific encyclopedias focus on a particular subject area. They are usually written by experts in the field and include comprehensive bibliographies of important resources. A frequently used online subject specific encyclopedia is Oxford Reference Online.

To locate subject specific encyclopedias, you can search Omni, or check the dictionaries/encyclopedia sections of our Research by Subject guides.

For an overview of a person’s life and career, check biographical dictionaries, which can present brief information or a more detailed portrayal with bibliographical references.

What about Wikipedia?

Wikipedia can be an useful resource, especially when you begin research. But it must be taken with a grain of salt. Even Wikipedia cautions you against using it as a source.  

Wikipedia articles can be written and edited by anyone and therefore are works in progress. Wikipedia can be a starting point for research - gaining a general understanding of a topic and finding potential resources for further in-depth information.

For more information, refer to Wikipedia's page on Researching with Wikipedia.

Examples of encyclopedias:

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