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Research Foundations: Find Background Information

Background Information

Once you have thought of a topic and created a research question that you would like to explore, the next step is to perform some background research on your topic.

Background research can take several forms. You might search Google, or read a few encyclopedia entries, or even a chapter in a textbook. In all of these instances, you will be briefly surveying the existing information to learn about your topic. This is a good practice because it helps to:

  • Identify key concepts, important terminology, notable people, and big events related to the topic
  • Formulate more specific research questions to help narrow your topic
  • Choose keywords to use for deeper searching
  • Highlight potential references and resources to use as you go through your research process
  • Make sure that there is enough information available on your topic
  • Decide if you truly want to pursue your research 

Background Information Sources




Encyclopedias are good at providing succinct coverage of larger topics. They are ideal for gleaning a "bigger picture" surrounding the issues you wish to research.

General encyclopedias, like Encyclopedia Britannica, will cover a wide variety of different topics. 

Subject encyclopedias, like the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Technology, will address smaller issues within a narrower subject area. They typically go into more detail than a general encyclopedia, but not as much as an entire book on a specific topic. 


Subject Dictionaries

Subject dictionaries can help with defining and understanding terminology common to the topic. A dictionary like A Visual Dictionary of Architecture, for instance, will focus solely on the subject of architecture and its vocabulary.

handbooks & sourcebooks

Handbooks, Sourcebooks, & Manuals

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. You might consult a resource like the Occupational Outlook Handbook for basic information regarding various careers, or the Handbook of Eating Disorders for a wide overview of the current research into different facets of the issue.

Current Issues Databases

The Seminole State Library has several research databases (we will cover those much deeper in Chapter 4) that specialize in coverage of "hot topics" and current events. These tools provide both introductory and comprehensive looks into a variety issues. They are especially useful as a tool to learn about different viewpoints surrounding your topic. To access these databases, you will need to login to the library using your borrower ID and PIN.

  • CQ Researcher provides reports on issues in most subject areas
  • Issues and Controversies offers in-depth coverage of many issues
  • Opposing Viewpoints in Context is a good source of pro/con discussions through various magazine, newspaper, and journal sources
  • SIRS Researcher is focused more on magazines and newspapers (which are ideal for current issues reporting) and collects articles discussing important issues in society


A simple Google search can yield an enormous number of results worthy of consideration for background information. Many will provide basic overviews of a topic or discuss popular opinion on a current issue. Look for these types of sources in your results list:

  • Organizations' (.org) websites will often give basic overviews of issues and causes they represent. Look for official organizations, and be careful of bias found on some sites.
  • Government agencies (.gov) websites can offer overviews of topics that they are involved in
  • Magazine and newspaper websites will generally provide some (or all) of their content for free
  • Some educational (.edu) sites, such as those sponsored by a college's department, will provide well-researched and documented information about an issue and may act as a directory to other quality sources

Wikipedia for Background Information

Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for research because of its vast and growing network of more than 30 million articles. Many professors and scholars do not recommend Wikipedia as a source of research because pages are collaboratively written and can be subject to errors and inconsistencies. In addition, some Wikipedia articles have been subject to vandalism, biased writing, and unsubstantiated claims. Even if you cannot use Wikipedia as a citable source, it still has an important place in the pre-research process.

When background researching a topic, Wikipedia is a great place to start. Understanding the background, history, and related terminology of a topic can help you discover scholarly and substantiated information from other sources like quality websites, books, or periodicals.

Besides giving an overview of a topic, Wikipedia is also a place to find leads to published materials and websites. For example, scroll to the end of many articles to find a list of Notes or References of sources used to write the article. Some of the sources may be hyperlinked, while others may just have the citation information. The Further Reading and External Links section also have great leads to more information.


"Wikipedia." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 July 2014. Web. Retrieved from