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Research Basics

A Guide to Academic Research at Dugan Library

Find Background Information

After choosing a topic, you will need to locate introductory sources that give basic background information about the subject. Finding background information at the beginning of your research is especially important if you are unfamiliar with the subject area, or not sure from what angle to approach your topic. Some of the information that a background search can provide includes:

  • Broad overview of the subject
  • Definitions of the topic
  • Introduction to key issues
  • Names of people who are authorities in the subject field
  • Major dates and events
  • Keywords and subject-specific vocabulary terms that can be used for database searches
  • Bibliographies that lead to additional resources

Background Information Sources


An encyclopedia is a great starting point for researching a topic. In addition to providing a succinct overview of your topic, it will introduce key concepts, keywords, and subject terms that will be helpful as you begin your research.

  • General encyclopedias will cover a wide range of topics from multiple disciplines.
  • Subject encyclopedias focus on a narrower subject, often providing more detailed information than a general encyclopedia.

Subject Dictionaries

Subject dictionaries can help with defining and understanding terminology common to the topic.


Handbooks, sourcebooks, and manuals are similar to subject encyclopedias or dictionaries in that they provide background information, facts, and figures about a field or industry.

Using Wikipedia

Wikipedia can be an excellent starting point for collecting background research on your topic. Most instructors will tell you not to cite Wikipedia in your research paper (and rightly so) because pages can be written by anyone and can be subject to errors, bias, vandalism, etc. But even though you can't use Wikipedia as a citable source in your paper, it is still an excellent source for background information. Always view information/claims on Wikipedia (even those with a source) with a healthy dose of suspicion, but the articles can be great for learning subject terminology, discovering related concepts, or getting a broad overview of an unfamiliar topic.

Tip: Scroll to the bottom of a Wikipedia entry to find a list of References or Notes leading to published sources of information on your topic.