George Mason University

Find Background Information

Once you've identified the topic for your research, it usually helps to find one or more sources of background information about your topic. Finding basic information about your topic helps you to understand the broader context of your research, find out in general terms what is known about your topic, and begin to understand the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

Resources for finding background information
  • General Encyclopedias
    An encyclopedia, such as Wikipedia, will have basic information about a wide variety of subjects. Use a source like this to gather background information, but don't rely on Wikipedia for all of your research. It's usually not considered a source of scholarly information, so you shouldn't base your research entirely on what you find there, unless your professor has specifically instructed you to do so. For more information on the ins and outs of using Wikipedia for research, watch this 6 minute video from North Carolina State University Libraries.
  • E-Reference Collections
  • Reference Universe - Use Reference Universe to search our collection (print and electronic) for reference works that may contain information about your topic. RU will link you to an array of resources including subject encyclopedias and handbooks held by Mason Libraries. You might also consult CQ Researcher, Oxford Reference Online, or Virtual Reference Shelf, LOC.

Search Now: Reference Universe
  • To find a subject encylopedia, search the Reference Universe database for "encyclopedia" and a broad topic, such as mathematics, religion, or nutrition. Don't get too specific with your search at this point.
  • To find a handbook, search the Reference Universe database for "handbook" and a topic. A handbook often includes more technical information, and is typically more specific than an encyclopedia.


  • Subject Guides - Mason Libraries maintains guides to research on many subjects.
  • Course Materials - If your topic is related to one of your courses, consider looking for background information in your textbooks, course reserves, or lecture notes.
  • Bibliographies - When you find something useful, such as an encyclopedia entry, check to see if there is a bibliography at the end of the entry: you may find that other useful books, journals, or magazines are listed there. Articles in scholarly journals are also likely to have bibliographies at the end of the article that can lead you to other sources. You can also search the Reference Universe database for "bibliography" and a topic. A bibliography is simply a list of works that are related to a topic, so a bibliography on your topic can point you to a lot of other possible resources.