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SSI1-105: Imagining the American West

Getting Started with Subject Encyclopedias

Subject encyclopedias, handbooks and overviews are scholarly, tertiary works written by experts on a variety of topics. An hour spent with one or more subject encyclopedias early on in the research process will save you hours of wasted time! Articles in subject encyclopedias are written by scholars who have deep specialization in the topic and the articles themselves go through a stringent editing process. 

Here's what subject encyclopedias provide:

  • broad overview of a topic that is more in-depth than in general encyclopedias
  • Discussion of how scholars have approached, explored, and debated the topic over time (historiography)
  • words, phrases, names, dates, and events that can be used as keywords when searching a database
  • bibliographies in articles to find other sources (both primary and secondary)
  • cross-references to find related topics

In Collins Library, the print reference collection is located on the first floor, and most of the online reference collection is available in one of the database collections listed below. Use Primo to identify subject encyclopedias in either format; or ask a librarian for recommendations.

Featured Subject Encyclopedias

The subject encyclopedias listed here are good starting points, but you also should explore the entries in the online collections.

More Tertiary Sources

Primary Source Collections

Online Reference Collections


Select a few keywords or ideas related to your topic to explore using the subject encyclopedias and the online collections featured on this page. Consult at least 2 different encyclopedias for information about your topic and reflect on the following questions:

  1. Does your topic or term have its own entry, or is discussion of it embedded within a larger topic? In other words, how is it categorized?
  2. Which academic disciplines are focusing attention on the topic?
  3. What disciplinary differences do you notice in the way the topic is covered? 
  4. What additional sources does the subject encyclopedia point you to?