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Information Literacy

Why background information?

When you first get a research assignment and perhaps for a considerable time afterward, you will almost always have to learn some background information as you develop your research question and explore how to answer it. Whether they be complex or easy-to-understand sources, we recommend that you read and/or view those that advance your knowledge and understanding of a variety of perspectives.

Especially while you are getting started, tertiary sources such as guidebooks or encyclopedias can be a big help. Wikipedia, for example, can be a good tertiary source of background information, particularly when you are just starting to explore a topic. Then, you might consider moving to subject- or topic-specific encyclopedia or dictionary at the library to identify a more specific research topic within your area of interest. You can use all these sources to get an overview of your topic and to learn the language that professionals and scholars have used when writing about your research question. That language will help you later, particularly when you’re searching for sources to answer your research question.

Use the "Databases, Encyclopedias, and Reference Sources" box on the Starting Your Research guide to find sources of background information on your topic.

Using background information

Let's say I'm interested in researching the cost of a college education.

I choose to start with Gale Virtual Reference Library and do a simple search for [cost of college]. The first result, "Trends in Postsecondary Education," looks like a chapter in a book called Social Trends and Indicators USA. It is labeled as a topic overview by the database and mentions my search terms in the brief description, so it seems like a good place for me to start.

After receiving your search results, be on the lookout for other search terms you might use to help narrow your search. For example, just by scanning some of the headings in this "Trends in Postsecondary Education" chapter, I can already identify some keywords that I hadn't thought of before:

  • Postsecondary education
  • Tuition and fees
  • Grants
  • Loans
  • Debt
  • Higher education
  • Value

In skimming the chapter and looking at the database's list of related subjects, I can also identify some related topics:

  • Great Society initiatives (1960s)
  • Consumer Price Index (CPI)
  • Distance education
  • Medical schools
  • Wages and salaries

In addition to identifying other keywords to use in your search, you can use background information to identify who cares about your topic so that you can consider a variety of perspectives in your research. By reading this overview of my topic, I can identify some of the groups or individuals affected by or making decisions about the cost of college:

  • Students
    • Specialization (e.g. medical school students)
    • Gender
    • Race/Ethnicity
  • Parents
  • Low-income families
  • Lawmakers (e.g. President Lyndon Johnson)

I can also skim the sources used to write this overview to see if there are articles or books there that I might use in my research. The second section, "Just How Much Has Tuition Gone Up?," has a reference to an article in the New York Times that looks like it discusses recent increases in college tuition, which is a topic I care to learn more about, since I not only have a personal investment in it, but I also have a few opinions about it!

Try it out!

Gathering and Using Background Information

Complete this activity to learn more about your topic and identify terminology, names, and sources that may further your research

Complete the Module