The Research Process: 1c. Find Background Information

A getting started and step-by-step guide to the research process.

Where Do I Find Background Info?

Try these:

  • textbooks
  • dictionaries
  • general encyclopedias
  • subject-specific encyclopedias  
  • article databases

You may also want to try browsing our Research Guides.


If you can't find an encyclopedia, dictionary, article, etc. on your topic, try using some broader keywords. For example, if your topic is "global warming," consider searching for a book or encyclopedia about the environment.

If that doesn't work try asking a librarian or your professor for some keyword suggestions.

What are the Purposes of Background Research?

Once you have identified some keywords, the next step is to find background information on your topic. Background info serves many purposes including:

  • If you are unfamiliar with the topic, it provides an overview.
  • It helps you identify important facts about your topic -- keywords, dates, events, history, and names or organizations.
  • It can help you refine your topic.
  • It might lead you to bibliographies you can use to find additional resources.

What about Wikipedia?

Wikipedia can be a great tool for beginning research. However, It must be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, Wikipedia itself even cautions you against using it as a source.

Wikipedia articles can be written and edited by anyone, including you! Likewise, articles are never "finished" --  instead they are works in progress. Therefore, Wikipedia is best used as starting point only.

Learn more about its strengths and weaknesses in the Reliability of Wikipedia entry, and learn how to effectively evaluate a Wikipedia article by viewing these guidelines.

Better yet, there are a wide variety of very reliable sources out there for you. Just ask a librarian to help you find them!

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