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New College Writing Program Library Guide: Find Background Information

An Overview - Background Information that Matters

After coming up with a topic and research question that personally matter to you, the next step is to provide yourself with some background information about your topic. You don’t want or need anything too specific just yet; contextual and background information is the stuff you’re after, especially if you haven’t come up with a particular perspective from which to approach your topic. The important thing is to find sources that can deliver: 

  • An overview of the topic 
  • Different definitions or perspectives of the topic 
  • A summary of the significant parts of the topic 
  • Names of people who are considered experts or authorities of the topic 
  • A timeline of important dates, events, and players 
  • A lexicon and topic-specific terms that can be used later for database searches 
  • Reliable bibliographies that can lead to additional research materials. 

In other words, you need to locate contextual and background information that can help you learn more about your topic and where you want to go in your research.

This section of the New College Lib Guide addresses sources that specialize in background information: encyclopedias, periodicals, online reference collections, and the Internet.


Generally you should not use encyclopedia entries as sources for your research papers.  You can use them though to define terms or concepts, basic facts or biographical details. 

Encyclopedia articles are also useful for deepening your knowledge and understanding of a subject, which may help you determine how to define your research question or structure your search.  It is worth the effort to see what they can offer. 

Internet Sources

We recognize that web browsers are readily available; smart phones, laptops, and tablets all make these kinds of searches quick and easy. However, these kinds of searches can also end up providing bad information and wasting a bunch of your valuable time. Oftentimes, university professors disallow the use of Internet sources in your research, so be aware of such guidelines before you get too far in the research process. On the other hand, there are a few places you can go to get not only background information for your topic, but references to other sources you may be able to use in your research process. Here are a few: 

Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/): 

Even though just about anyone can add and/or edit in this encyclopedia, Wikipedia can provide some useful information. You just need to know where to look. Thus, check out the Footnotes, References, and External links that appear at the end of the entry. This information will lead you to references you may want to look for in your library. 


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