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SSI1-163: Becoming Modern: Paris 1870-1900: Building Context

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! The background information provides a good starting point as you begin the research process. 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); typically, these bibliographies point to just a few key sources, rather than overwhelming you with a comprehensive list.
  • cross-references to find related 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

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 on the right.  Use Primo to identify subject encyclopedias in either format; or ask a librarian for recommendations.

Recommended Subject Encyclopedias for Context

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 Paris Commune. For each entry, ask yourself these questions:

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


All Groups: "Paris Commune" from Wikipedia 

Group 1: "Commune de Paris" from the New Oxford Companion to Literature in French

Group 2: "Commune of Paris" from the Historical Dictionary of the Third French Republic, 1870-1940 [print book provided in class]

Group 3: "Paris Commune" from the Encyclopedia of Politics: The Left and the Right

Group 4: "La Commune" from France: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present [print book provided in class]

Group 5: "Paris Commune" from the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World

Group 6: "Paris Commune" from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History

Group 7: "Commune, Paris (1871)" from The Oxford Companion to Military History

Oxford Reference Art & Architecture

Oxford Reference Art & Architecture

Includes these sources for an overview of art related topics.


Oxford Art Online

Oxford Art Online

Covers biographies, criticism, country surveys, artistic styles and movements, art forms, subject matter and iconography, and techniques. Note: Limit of 3 simultaneous users.

Online Reference Collections

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