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Library Research E-Textbook - Instructor Version: Explore a Topic

Explore a Topic through Background Info: Introduction & Goals


Exploration of a topic is an important part of the research process. Take the time to reflect on your topic and gather some background information before jumping right into your paper or project. Wikipedia is recommended as a place to start the exploration stage of your research. Sometimes we don't need to read a whole book to get the background information we need on a topic.  Instead, when you need to get the gist of something, it's a time-saving approach to look for a concise, summative information source like Wikipedia to get an overview of a topic. Feel free to browse Wikipedia as a starting point, but it should be used only as a place to begin forming your thoughts. Although handy, Wikipedia is typically not considered "academic" and would not stand up as an authoritative source in a college research paper.

Library encyclopedias are another great place to find authoritative sources that provide useful background information on a topic. They can also be a great place to explore potential topics for a research paper. Encyclopedias are located on the second floor of the library, but you can also visit one of our many electronic encyclopedias listed further below in the module.


In this module, you will learn to:

  • Explore a topic through background information
  • Identify and locate encyclopedia articles on a topic

Research Interest Inventory

Use this worksheet to brainstorm a list of words (or phrases) that come to mind when you think about a certain topic for your research paper.

Finding Background Information Using Library Resources

Types of sources for great background info

When you're getting started on a new project, there are many different types of places you can look for background information about a topic.

Types of sources for background information include the following:

Strategies and Sources for Finding Background Information

Strategies for background searching

Searching within Wikipedia and encyclopedias is simple, but like any research, sometimes it helps to use a few strategies more effective than tossing a few terms into a search box.

  1. Make connections from your specific topic to the larger issues it relates to. For instance, if my topic is motocross I might search for extreme sports and find information that is also related.
  2. Brainstorm every new topic! Identify keywords and terminology both by sitting down with a pad of paper and by learning from your searches. Terms you see come up a lot in relation to your topic will probably be helpful terms to try searching (and check out the next module on Defining Keywords to help you out with this).
  3. Take advantage of what we call "lateral searching" by checking the references of any book, article, or website you find that you like. These can be found in the footnotes, endnotes, or works cited/bibliography section of a source. See the module on Lateral Searching for further information.

SLOs and IL Standards

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Critical Thinking

Information Literacy Standards:

  • Standard 1
  • Standard 3

Instructor tip

Below is a more complete list of library resources that provide electronic access to encyclopedias and background information. Each resource is available as a link from the Research Databases page on the library website. Got questions? Ask a librarian for a resource recommendation that can support a particular course project

Instructor notes

Activity 1: This activity can be repeated at the beginning of each major project. It's an opportunity for students to explore two topics before settling on a paper topic.

Activity 2: This activity can also be done as a discussion board or blog post.

Please consider sharing your students' work with Rachel Santose ( for assessment purposes.

Activity Option 1: Explore two topics

This exercise is an opportunity to explore two possible topics for your research paper by finding background information for each topic.

Download and complete the attached worksheet that asks you to work through the following steps:

  1. Identify two topics that interest you
  2. Find a useful entry for each topic in one of the following resources accessible from the Research Databases page on the library website
  3. Consider what you learned and next steps for your project

Please consider sharing your students' work with Rachel Santose ( for assessment purposes.

Activity Option 2: In class free write

Explore at least two potential topics for a paper by locating, printing and reading one article that address each topic from the resources above. Bring the articles to class and consider the following questions during an in-class free-write.

  • Discuss the two topics you are considering for this project.
  • List the resource you used and the keywords entered (e.g., Academic Search Complete, steroids, baseball, regulations)
  • Name one thing you learned from reading each article you found
  • Name one question you have or one thing you’d like to learn more about
  • Now that you’ve completed this exploration exercise, which of the two topics are you leaning towards and why?

Please consider sharing your students' work with Rachel Santose ( for assessment purposes.