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A Guide for English and American Literature

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Expanding your background knowledge

After gaining basic background from a general encyclopedia, consider looking for more in depth background information in specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias.  Reading relevant entries from a subject-specific encyclopedia will provide more sophisticated context, concepts, and vocabulary in given fields, thus helping you expand and refine your search terms.

Look up subject-specific encyclopedias and dictionaries in the Libraries' Catalog by adding the word "encyclopedias" or "dictionaries" to your keyword search.  For example, to find a psychology encyclopedia you could perform the following search in the catalog:

Searching by Keyword and by Subject

If you rely only on keyword searching, you may miss some excellent, relevant sources since keywords, like tags applied to photographs, are not standardized. 

Searching by subject, on the other hand, allows you to tap into a system of standardized, controlled, and organized vocabulary and thus more precise and comprehensive searching.  An example:  If you were searching for information on "space," as in space travel, the solar system, etc., a keyword search using the term "space" would yield many results about living space, architecture, and other irrelevant results.  

In addition, you'd miss quite a few relevant sources since the subject term for space is "astronomy."  Click astronomy to see a browse a list of sub-categories and related terms.

The catch:  Subject terms are often constructed of non-intuitive language.  Try this strategy:

  • Conduct a logical keyword search and choose a result that looks promising  
  • Scroll to the bottom of the record and look at the subject terms (they are shown as links)
  • Let one of these "official" search term lead you to other related terms

Links to Encyclopedias and Reference Sources by Subject