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ENGL 237: America Beyond Borders

Getting Started with Subject Encyclopedias

For an upcoming assignment in this class, you and your peers will be developing context presentations that provide historical, political, social, or other background information for an assigned topic relevant to one of the primary literary texts you will read. 

The subject encyclopedias and other resources listed on this course guide are intended to help you get started. You usually can expect to find the following important information in articles in subject encyclopedias:

  • An overview of the topic, with key individuals and events identified, and often some mention of how the topic has been debated or studied over time
  • Words, phrases, names, dates, and events that can be used as keywords when searching a database
  • Cross references to give you a sense of the boundaries of the topic and its relationship to other topics
    • Look for "see also" at the beginning or end of the article
    • Some encyclopedias highlight words in the text of the article to indicate that there is a separate entry on that topic
  • Bibliographies in articles to find other sources (both primary and secondary); typically, these bibliographies point to just a few key sources, rather than overwhelming you with a comprehensive list.

Practice Using Encyclopedias

Subject encyclopedias provide a quick way to gather background information and capture multidisciplinary lenses on a single topic. Compare, for example, the following selection of entries, all relating in some fashion to the building of the Panama Canal. For each entry, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is mentioned in all/most of the entries?
  2. Which academic disciplines are focusing attention on the topic? Are there any disciplinary differences in the way the topic is covered?
  3. What additional sources does the subject encyclopedia point you to?
  4. To expand on the basic information you have gained, are there other terms/names you would like to research? 


Your Turn! Working with your partner or small group, find at least 3 subject encyclopedia articles related to your broad topic. You may start by doing a general search for your broad topic, but don't stop there! Keep a running list of topics or keywords appearing in the entries you discover and look out for cross-references to additional sources. 

Recommended Subject Encyclopedias

Start with these subject encyclopedias and branch out as needed. 

Print encyclopedias and dictionaries are located on the first floor of Collins Library.

Online Reference Collections

Not sure where to look?  Each of these online collections will introduce you to a wealth of dictionaries and encyclopedias.