Background Reading


It’s useful to think about this early stage of your process as one of exploration. Your topic and your information need will more than likely evolve as you determine if something is searchable, find sources that deepen your understanding, and start writing.

Whether a topic is completely new to you or you’re already somewhat familiar with it, doing a bit of research before you actually dig into the real research—what I call presearch—is a great idea. Background information helps you understand the context of your topic and how it relates to a larger picture. This exploratory process will also help you think of any specialized terms associated with your topic that you will use for searching (we’ll talk more about the importance of keywords in a later chapter). And, sometimes, this initial exploration will lead you to realize you aren’t discovering any relevant sources on your topic so you might need to make some modifications. That’s ok. A little work up front will save you time later.

Google as Your Presearch Tool

Many people start their research these days with a preliminary Google search, which usually leads them to Wikipedia. Why? Wikipedia and reference sources in general (e.g., encyclopedias, atlases, handbooks) are excellent sources of background information. Though Wikipedia is not considered a scholarly or academic source, it can be a place for preresearch, allowing you to gather general information on your area of interest, and giving you ideas for narrow areas of focus. The “content” box on the left-hand side of Wikipedia pages can help you quickly scan for potentially relevant and interesting subtopics.

We’ll talk about the multiple purposes of Wikipedia in a later chapter, but it’s important to note that many instructors will not accept Wikipedia as a source for the research assignment you ultimately turn in, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it during the early stages of research when you are seeking background information.

Library Resources as your presearch tool

Beyond Wikipedia there are other reference sources that are considered more scholarly by instructors and, occasionally, can be cited in your final research assignment. The library provides access to reference tools that would also be helpful for presearch, such as Credo Reference and Gale eBooks. These search tools allow you to search across hundreds of full-text encyclopedias and dictionaries with one search. Unlike Wikipedia, sources found in these tools clearly show the authors and publishers responsible for producing the content, and often the creators are experts in the subject matter. We’ll talk more about searching these tools in a later chapter, but you can find tools to search for reference sources as a way to conduct presearch on the Resources by Type  Reference Sources page. Click through the images below to see how to find the Reference Sources page on the Barber Library website.


Sections of this chapter were adapted from the following:
Doing Research by Celia Brinkerhoff, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Introduction to College Research by Walter D. Butler, Aloha Sargent, and Kelsey Smith, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Finding Information by Kirsten Hostetler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.