Reference sources, sometimes called tertiary sources (to distinguish them from primary and secondary sources), are a great way to start your research in a new subject area. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, and bibliograhies can help you brainstorm research ideas, give you an overview of your topic, and and point you to the most important books and articles. It's like Wikipedia, only professor-approved, more extensive, and (usually) more scholarly.
Traditionally encyclopedias were available only in print, in the reference area of the library. While we still have many in print, you'll also find these resources online through the library, in ebooks and databases.
Please ask a librarian when you need help tracking down the best background information.
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A subject encyclopedia provides in-depth information about a specific topic. Entries or articles, written by scholars or subject experts include bibliographies or suggested readings that will lead to more information on your topic.
You can use subject encyclopedias for basic background reading or to identify keywords.