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Getting Started with Library Research

Acquiring Background Information

When starting a new project, it is always a good idea to acquire background information about it. This process helps you better understand your topic. As you gather background information, you will become familiar with the major issues and important people, terms, concepts and events in your field, as well as the contributing scholars in the field. Starting with a broad view of your topic can help you understand how it relates to related issues. Engaging in this type of preliminary research can also help you form original ideas for a research question. 

You may gather background information from a wide variety of resources that are often referred to as "reference works." Examples of reference works include:

  • almanacs
  • dictionaries
  • digests
  • encyclopedias (including Wikipedia)
  • guidebooks
  • manuals
  • textbooks

Reference works compile, summarize, digest, and organize information. Some reference works, such as Wikipedia, cover general knowledge and some, such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, are specific to a particular field. Some reference works are are free and some can be accessed only through libraries. Most reference works will provide you with citations and links to additional and more detailed scholarly material. While some resources are free and rely on crowdsourcing for accuracy, there are many expensive scholarly encyclopedias available only through libraries that are reviewed and edited by teams of experts.

Note that all reference works are considered to be tertiary sources as opposed to primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources are not used as cited evidence in papers written for university level courses. More information about primary, secondary, and tertiary sources can be found on the Source Types guide.

Some general purpose reference works that you can consult through the UMass Global Library and for free are listed below.