Skip to Main Content

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

Explore a Topic Through Finding Background Information


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.  There are also many electronic encyclopedias available through the library databases.  Check them out in our Research Databases under the heading "General Reference."


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

Sources that are great for finding background information on your topic:

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.

View This Video on Choosing a Topic

Subject Guide