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SSI2-148: Medical Narratives

Using 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. 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

Although many subject encyclopedias are now available online via library subscription, some are still available only in print format. Print reference materials are located on the first floor of Collins Library, near the Learning Commons computers.

Subject Encyclopedias and Multidisciplinary Inquiry

When you are working with a topic that is complex and multi-faceted, subject encyclopedias can help you glimpse a more holistic framework. Consider, for example, the following entries, all relating in some fashion to cancer:

  • "Cancer," The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine (written by physician Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt with assistance fromTeresa Odle, a freelance writer and editor)
  • "Cancer," Dictionary of American History (written by historian Robert Proctor)
  • "Cancer," Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics (written by sociologist David Hess)
  • "Cancer," St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (written by Luca Prono, a scholar of American Studies)
  • "Cancer," Encyclopedia of Evolution (written by Michael Dean, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health)

How does the disciplinary expertise of the authors of each entry influence how they cover the topic of cancer? What kinds of details are important to each?

Featured Subject Encyclopedias

Although many subject encyclopedias are now available online via library subscription, some are still available only in print format. The subject encyclopedias listed here are good starting points, but you also should explore the entries in the online collections.

Online Reference Collections

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