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Starting your research

What to look for

Background information can help you prepare for further research by explaining all the issues related to your topic, especially when you're investigating a field that's unfamiliar to you. Tips:

  • Check for background information in: dictionaries, handbooks and encyclopedias.
  • Look for facts in: statistical guides, almanacs, biographical sources, or handbooks.
  • Collect keywords or important terms, concepts and author names to use when searching databases.
  • Start thinking in broad terms, then narrow down your topic.
  • Look at bibliographies to guide you to other sources of information (books, articles, etc.)

Concrete Suggestions

About Wikipedia

You're already familiar with Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia.  Library reference sources have some differences from Wikipedia that you should be aware of, including:

  • Money: Library reference sources are generally part of the fee-based web, which means they require a subscription to access the content, making the information in them very valuable.  The libraries pay a subscription fee for you to have access to this content.
  • Authority: "Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world.  Anyone with Internet access can make changes to Wikipedia articles."  (  whereas library reference sources are written collectively by experts in the fields they cover - some are researchers, some are professors, but all have qualifications of a professional nature.
  • Depth/Focus: Wikipedia contains encyclopedia-like articles on almost anything, making it a general or multidisciplinary source of information whereas library reference sources often cover one subject area in depth, so you can choose a source that focuses on the discipline you're researching more extensively.
  • Credibility/Accuracy: Wikipedia has a set of editing policies and guidelines that authors should follow when writing or editing articles but library reference sources are edited and vetted for accuracy, currency, and authority by the source's editorial board (often a group of researchers in the field).  

Wikipedia can be a good source to begin with.  However, you should balance what you find there with information from other reference sources as well.  And make sure you evaluate information you find from the Wikipedia or any other source.


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