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Research Tips: Finding Background Information

Last Updated: Aug 9, 2018 12:19 PM


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


Encyclopedias are important sources to consider when initially researching a topic. General encyclopedias provide basic information on a wide range of subjects in an easily readable and understandable format. 

Using an encyclopedia is an effective way to quickly get a broad overview of a subject. Some encyclopedias will provide more in-depth information than others, however any general encyclopedia is a good source to consult for background information of your chosen subject area. Most encyclopedias provide the following:

  • Main concepts
  • Titles of important books written about topic
  • Names of authors who have written about topic
  • Keywords and subject terms related to topic
  • Lists of related articles or additional resources

Gale Virtual Reference Library is an online encyclopedia that has a vast online library giving instant access to the most authoritative and up-to-date scholarship across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences. It is one of the largest academic reference collections online.


Using search interfaces can lead you to an ocean of good and bad information.  Being critical of everything you see on the Internet is crucial when getting background information for an academic writing assignment.  Professors often prohibit students from citing Internet sites on a research paper so be careful that you understand what is acceptable and unacceptable to quote.  However, there are places on the Internet that will give you references that you may want to track down through your library.

  • Wikipedia "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit".  This includes the 10 year old kid down the street so reading the entry and treating it as fact is not the best thing to do.  Instead use the References or Further Readings at the end of an entry to verify the information presented in the Wikipedia entry.

  • Google Books Enter your search terms in Google books and digitized holdings of some of the worlds greatest academic libraries will appear. It might give you just enough background information to get your paper started without coming in to the library to borrow a book.

  • Google Scholar Here you are finding scholarly research, but from a limited number of journals.  Once you put in your search terms you can get a good overview of a topic by limiting to time period on the left.

**Tip: Select "Settings" from the main page then "Library Links" (on the left).  Once there enter University at Buffalo and select the university.  This then allows you to find the article through your library by clicking the "Find it @ UB" link.