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Use encyclopedias and dictionaries to research and develop a focused analysis about your question or topic.

The first step in any writing project is determining a specific topic. To help narrow your topic, you may find it useful to gather some general background information. This process can help you locate some valuable sources to consult. To obtain a few essential facts and to gain a sense of the "dialogue" that is transpiring among scholars and researchers about your topic, try consulting general encyclopedias and dictionaries or, if appropriate, specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries.

Of course, college instructors tend to frown on research studies that merely summarize encyclopedia entries (because such studies don't critically analyze or interpret; they simply reiterate commonly accepted/disseminated knowledge). Your teachers want to see that you have studied, interpreted, synthesized, and integrated a variety of sources. As a result, you will want to avoid relying heavily on encyclopedias. Nevertheless, when beginning a research project, reading a succinct entry in an encyclopedia—such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Americana, or Collier's Encyclopedia—can save you a tremendous amount of time.

In some cases, the full text of encyclopedias can be searched on the Web for free. Some encyclopedias allow you a free trial subscription for a limited number of usages. Rather than poring through a stack of books to get a general sense of the scope of your topic, you will find in encyclopedias and dictionaries concise summaries of significant facts, experiments, and theories related to your subject. Also, general and specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries often list important works and bibliographies, thereby providing you with solid preliminary leads for further research. To access the information available in a general encyclopedia, check the encyclopedia's subject index. To determine whether an encyclopedia or dictionary is available on your subject, check the library's catalog. Below is a list of a few popular specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries.

  • To obtain specific facts and figures that are based on the United States Census and other demographic research, consult the Statistical Abstract of the United States (see Consulting Government Resources). On a broader scale The World Almanac can also provide invaluable data. If you need to find information about a person's background, try consulting the Biography and Genealogy Master Index or Biographical Dictionaries.
  • Finding a bibliography—a listing of what has been published on a subject—can be a terrific time saver. As a result, it is definitely worth your effort to check the Bibliographic Index, which is designed to refer researchers to bibliographies or books that have bibliographies in them. Because the Bibliographic Index does not provide a cumulative listing of bibliographies, however, you may need to review several past years to find bibliographies related to your topic. Also, once you find one relevant article or book that contains a bibliography, you can always follow up on its sources. A third way to find bibliographies on your topic is to check the subject card in the card catalog and select books that include bibliographies.

Sample Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

  • American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Contents/Info: The fourth edition from 2000 contains over 90,000 entries and features 10,000 new words and tenses, 70,000 audio pronunciations, language notes, root words, etc.
  • DictSearchOpen Access Contents/Info: Search in 168 on-line dictionaries on the Internet and translate terms from over 60 languages to 61 target languages.
  • Glossarist.com Contents/Info: The Glossarist is a comprehensive directory of thousands of glossaries available on the WWW and may be searched by keyword or browsed in more than 130 categories.
  • HandSpeak: A Sign Language Dictionary Online Contents/Info: A visual sign language dictionary, maintained by DeafWorldWeb. The signs are in the form of GIF-animation.
  • Merriam-Webster Online (Includes Collegiate Thesaurus)Contents/Info: The Merriam-Webster (M-W) Language Center has a dictionary and a thesaurus
  • Roget's Thesaurus Contents/Info: Searchable version of the online thesaurus, with capability of browsing by Roget's categories.