View of early printed books on shelves in stacks in strong room number seven; Wellcome Institute Library. CC-A-4.0I. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Using background sources is the quickest way to get at basic information on a topic, much quicker than having to wade through whole books or find and read multiple articles. When we talk about background sources (also known as "reference works"), we are talking about publications such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, manuals, companions, almanacs, or atlases. The Gumberg Library has a tremendous wealth of reference works to choose from, many available electronically.
Background sources can also help you to define a sufficiently narrowed research topic. Many students have difficulty with this because they do not know enough about a potential topic. Background sources will take a broad topic and break it down into many subtopics, suggesting narrower aspects of the broader topic that you might want to explore in your research.
The Gumberg Library provides access to a number of collections of electronic reference books, comprised of encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, etc. on all subjects. In some collections, all works can be searched at once, which means you do not have to have a particular reference book in mind before you start.
These collections include:
|Gale Virtual Reference Library||Oxford Reference|
|Sage eReference||Wiley Online Library|
Particularly good for STEM fields:
If you are interested in researching a current events topic, the database below is great for providing background information:
If you need to find background information on an author or other literary topic, these are great databases to use:
To access one of these collections, just click on a link above. If you are accessing these collections from home, you will need to enter your MultiPass username and password to get to them.
Using Wikipedia is an easy and convenient way to begin find background information. But be aware that there are two serious flaws with Wikipedia. The first is that anyone can write articles for it. You do not have to be an expert on a subject. The second is that anyone can edit the articles. Again, you do not have to be an expert on the subject. These two points cause concerns as to the accuracy and authority of what you read there. Because of these problems, gain what background information you can from Wikipedia articles, but do not use them as sources for academic writing.
Published by Oxford University Press. While the works in this series are not reference works, these very short books (around 120 pages each) provide basic, no-fluff introductions to hundreds of subjects. Check the tables of contents and indexes to find the sections of the books most relevant to your research. You can also keyword search them.
To see all the Very Short Introductions, click the image directly above
If you are off-campus you will need to enter your Multipass username and password when you click on the image
Click a link below to find background sources, print and electronic, in selected subject areas.
African American Reference Works
You will also find very specific background sources on many of our research guides on individual topics.