The Research Process: 1c. Find Background Information

A step-by-step guide for getting started in the research process.

Where Do I Find Background Information?

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:

  • It provides an overview to help you feel grounded before you start your research. 
  • 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 and gathering background information. However, users must remain cautious and remember to check other sources to ensure the information is correct and credible.

Wikipedia articles can be written and edited by anyone, including you! In fact, Wikipedia itself even cautions you against using it as a sourceLikewise, 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.

While Wikipedia may be a decent starting point, 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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