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Background Sources

A Gumberg Library Research Guide

Shelf of old books

View of early printed books on shelves in stacks in strong room number seven; Wellcome Institute Library. CC-A-4.0I. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finding Background Information

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.

Electronic Reference Databases

The Gumberg Library provides access to a number of databases 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. Links to these databases can be found on the menu on the left. Please enter you Multipass information when prompted. 

Click a link below to find background sources, print and electronic, in selected subject areas.

Please enter you Multipass information when prompted.