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Research Skills Tutorial: 2. Finding Background Sources

Intended to help you develop the skills required to complete research assignments

Background information

After you've chosen a topic to research, you will need to find sources that introduce you to the topic. Background sources provide you with:

  • Important dates or events
  • Definitions
  • Introduction to key issues or debates
  • Keywords and the language used to talk about the topic
  • Lists of sources that may provide a starting point in your research 

What are Encyclopedias?

Encyclopedias provide background information on a topic. Encyclopedias can be on a specific topic, or a wide range of topics. 

Our online and print encyclopedias are written by scholars and are great starting points for your research!

Check out our reference collection for subject-specific encyclopedias and dictionaries that provide facts on historical events, artistic movements, and social or scientific concepts. 

Or, use some of the online encyclopedias and databases on this page. 

Online Encyclopedias

Using Internet Sources

Websites, blogs and Wikipedia can help you get a sense of some of the big issues related to your topic, and can give you ideas for issues to research further.

While searching Google is easy, verifying the accuracy of information you find through Google is tricky. Many websites such as Wikipedia are not created to support academic research. While these sources are an OK starting point, your instructor will want you to rely on sources written by experts when it comes to supporting your arguments. 

Why Can't I Use Wikipedia?

Many instructors will tell you not to use Wikipedia at all for research. There are a few reasons why instructors are reluctant to allow you to use Wikipedia.

1. Anyone can edit Wikipedia 
  • One of the benefits and drawbacks of Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it. This means that information about an event or issue can be updated quickly as things happen, but it also means that Wikipedia is susceptible to vandalism.

  • Sometimes, entries can be biased depending on the author. Wikipedia usually flags these pages for problems.

2. Over-relying on Wikipedia is not research
  • Wikipedia provides mostly background information and will not give you in-depth information. Relying on Wikipedia will result in a boring paper, and you will not be able to support your arguments well. 

  • Anyone can read a Wikipedia page. If you rely on Wikipedia for most of your research, your paper will read like a Wikipedia entry. 

  • Research involves listening to the academic conversation that is occurring between experts on a topic. To understand major issues or debates, you have to read the sources written by experts. 

Tips for Using Wikipedia
  • Scroll down to the "Sources" section of a page. Some of these sources may be useful sources for your research.

  • Read Wikipedia pages to get ideas for keywords to use to find articles and books. Wikipedia can provide you with a sense of the language used to describe a topic.

  • Skim Wikipedia pages to identify key people associated with a topic. These may be important authors or people involved in an event or debate. Search for more information on these people in the library's databases.