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SSI2-105: Imagining the American West

Why Use Subject Encyclopedias?

Building context (and recognizing when you need more context) is an important element in the research process. Tertiary sources, especially subject encyclopedias, are often the best place to start when you are trying to establish some basic historical, social, or cultural context.

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. You usually can expect to find the following important information in articles in subject encyclopedias:

  • 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


Practical information:

  • There's a subject encyclopedia for just about any topic; if you can't find an article that works for you in one of the subject encyclopedias below, just ask a librarian or one of our Peer Research Advisors for suggestions.
  • Use the index (for print encyclopedias) or the keyword search (for online encyclopedias). This will help you identify instances when the discussion of your specific topic is embedded within a larger discussion.
  • Explore articles on a single topic in multiple subject encyclopedias. For example, articles on the railroad will have different emphases in subject encyclopedias devoted to Native Americans, Immigration, or Public Relations. Oftentimes these differences can lead to interesting research questions!
  • Print encyclopedias are located in the reference section on the first floor of the library; you can't take them outside of the library, but you're welcome to use one of the scanners in the Learning Commons to make a copy of the pages you need.
  • Online encyclopedias can be accessed from any computer with Internet access; if you are located off-campus, be sure to use the links provided on the library's website so that you'll be prompted to enter your University of Puget Sound username and password.

Featured Subject Encyclopedias

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

Additional Tertiary Sources

Online Reference Collections

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