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Encyclopedias will help you

  • find ideas for a research assignment
  • get an overview of a topic before starting your real research
  • get a general understanding of something related to your research topic
  • find key terms or words associated with your topic
  • find key references for your topic

Encyclopedias are references works that are

  • generally multi-volume
  • generally alphabetical in arrangement
    • sometimes by subject area or theme
  • generally contain cross-references to related information
  • generally have an index at the end (usually the last volume)
    • small (one-volume) encyclopedias often do not have an index
  • cover all branches of knowledge
    • some specialize in a particular branch of knowledge
  • generally written by subject experts
  • summaries of the most important information on a topic
  • sources of key references on a topic

Using encyclopedias

  • Always check more than one encyclopedia because each encyclopedia has its own emphasis or bias
  • Never use an encyclopedia as the only source of information for your research assignment
  • Some encyclopedias have online versions, check your library's list of databases and electronic indexes

For a general overview of the structure and scope of an encyclopedia scan the introductory pages at the beginning of the work (usually in the first volume).

To find information, start by looking in the index of the encyclopedia (generally in the last volume) for your topic. If you do not find your topic

  • try synonyms for the term you used
  • try broader terms
  • try different encyclopedias.

Types of encyclopedias

General encyclopedias

  • interdisciplinary
  • contain synopses of essential information on all branches of knowledge
  • kept in libraries, schools, and homes for quick reference
  • examples are: the Encyclopedia Americana, the New Encyclopaedia Britannica, or the World Book Encyclopedia

Specialized encyclopedias

  • concentrate on a specific branch of knowledge
  • contain synopses of essential information on all aspects of that branch of knowledge
  • written for those who need detailed summaries of topics in that branch of knowledge
  • examples are: the Encyclopaedia of Food Science, Food Technology, and Nutrition, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or the Encyclopedia of Sociology

To find encyclopedias

To find general encyclopedias, do a SUBJECT search in the library catalog on encyclopedias and dictionaries.

To find specialized encyclopedias, do a SUBJECT search on a broad topic such as sociology, music, or agriculture and look for the sub-division "encyclopedias" following that term. This will give you a list of the specialized encyclopedias that library owns on that branch of knowledge.

The distinction between encyclopedias and dictionaries can become blurred. For example, the Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopedique Larousse and the Dictionary of American History are a bit of both. They are arranged alphabetically but each entry contains more

Or, ASK A LIBRARIAN for the best encyclopedia to use for your topic.