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Research Process: Background Information

This tutorial aims to help develop effective library research skills and critical thinking skills in all courses at Prince George's Community College.

Background Information

Before deciding on a specific topic for your research paper, it is important to begin with some background reading in the related broad subject area to gain familiarity with concepts and vocabulary. For example, Reference Books will point to more specialized areas of the subject and often have bibliographies to lead to additional information. 

Reference Books

A reference book is a book that can be used by itself as a source of information without use of a second source. The information is usually concise and factual; however, the information may vary in length from a brief definition or statistic to a lengthy article.

Reference books usually include access components such as indexes that lead to information elsewhere in the book itself, rather than to other sources of information. In many cases, reference books cannot be used effectively without using access points included in the reference tool. It is therefore important to look for indexes and other access keys in reference books. 

Types of Reference Books

Encyclopedias (General)

  • One of the best places to find an overview of questions and topics on any subjects
  • Examples: Encyclopedia Americana, World Book Encyclopedia, Academic American Encyclopedia

Encyclopedia (Subject)

  • Go into greater depth on more specific questions than general encyclopedias
  • Examples: Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice, Encyclopedia of Bioethics, McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology

Dictionaries (English Language)

  • One way to begin your research is to focus on keywords - the important words used in discussions of your question. As you look for answers to your research question, you will need to be familiar with the keywords associated with it. You can explore the meanings of keywords by using dictionaries.
  • Example: American Heritage Dictionary

Dictionaries (Subject)

  • Define topics more specifically
  • Examples: Black's Law Dictionary, Dictionary of Medicine, Dictionary of Psychology


  • Help you obtain factual information on a particular subject in a brief, easy-to-consult format
  • Examples: Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, Occupational Outlook Handbook


  • Help you to place your research in a location. They are collections of maps which may also include charts, short articles, and special maps showing population, climate, economic factors, etc.
  • Example: Times Atlas of the World

Reference Online

Listed below are examples of online reference sources that may be useful before beginning your search strategy. Click on the links to review them.

General Encyclopedias

Subject Encyclopedias

English Language Dictionaries

Special Dictionaries

In this tutorial you will learn how to use Wikipedia as an exploratory tool and where it can appropriately fit in the research process. Video tutorial created by Michael Baird, Cooperative Library Instruction Project (CLIP).