Finding Background Information

Read How- Encyclopedias | Periodicals | Internet

Overview - The Importance of Background Information

After choosing a topic, you will need to locate introductory sources that give basic background information about the subject. Finding background information at the beginning of your research is especially important if you are unfamiliar with the subject area, or not sure from what angle to approach your topic. Some of the information that a background search can provide includes:

  • Broad overview of the subject
  • Definitions of the topic
  • Introduction to key issues
  • Names of people who are authorities in the subject field
  • Major dates and events
  • Keywords and subject-specific vocabulary terms that can be used for database searches
  • Bibliographies that lead to additional resources

This section of the Research Tips will guide you to using encyclopedias, periodicals, and the Internet for background information.


Encyclopedias are important sources to consider when initially researching a topic. General encyclopedias provide basic information on a wide range of subjects in an easily readable and understandable format. 

If you are certain about what subject area you want to choose your topic from, you might want to use a specialized or subject encyclopedia instead. Subject encyclopedias limit their scope to one particular field of study, offering more detailed information about the subject.

  • General Encyclopedias provide information about nearly every topic. Using an encyclopedia is an effective way to quickly get a broad overview of a subject. Some encyclopedias will provide more in-depth information than others, however any general encyclopedia is a good source to consult for background information of your chosen subject area. Most encyclopedias provide the following:
    • Main concepts
    • Titles of important books written about topic
    • Names of authors who have written about topic
    • Keywords and subject terms related to topic
    • Lists of related articles or additional resources
  • Gale Virtual Reference Library
    This online encyclopedia is a vast online library giving instant access to the most authoritative and up-to-date scholarship across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences. It is one of the largest academic reference collections online.
  • Subject-Specific Encyclopedias are important background sources for information. Unlike general encyclopedias which cover a wide range of topics, subject-specific encyclopedias focus their information in one particular subject area. Some features of subject-specific encyclopedias include:
    • Detailed articles written by experts within a field
    • Extensive and comprehensive bibliographies of important resources
    Go to Research Guides for a list of subject-specific and electronic resources including encyclopedias.

  • Wikipedia
    From Wikipedia's own page, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit".  This includes the 10 year old down the street so reading the entry and treating it as fact is not the best thing to do.  Instead use the References or Further Readings at the end of an entry to verify the information presented in the Wikipedia entry.


Periodicals (also known as serials) are publications printed "periodically", either daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or on an annual basis. Journals, magazines, and newspapers are different types of periodicals. Examples of periodicals include the following:

  • NEWSPAPERS - New York Times
  • POPULAR MAGAZINES - Time or Vogue
  • SCHOLARLY JOURNALS/PEER-REVIEWED- Journal of Advertising Research
  • TRADE PUBLICATIONS - Consumer Marketing

Because of their up-to-date information, articles from newspapers, and popular and general interest periodical publications make great resources for choosing topics. However, scholarly or peer-reviewed journals, because they often require specialized knowledge or vocabulary, should not be used for selecting topics and instead used later in the research process when you have established a better understanding of your topic.

You may search in the following ways:

  • Keyword search example: journal and advertising
  • Title search example: american marketing journal
  • Title search example: new york times
  • Subject heading search example: advertising--periodicals

Frequently Used Databases for Newspapers

Newspapers are good sources for up-to-date as well as historical information about events and issues. Databases such as

are excellent sources for locating newspaper articles from leading newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Go to Newspaper Research in the UB Libraries for information on currently received newspaper titles, finding newspapers in the Classic Catalog and more.

Browsing Current Print Periodical Collections

It is also a good idea to browse current print periodical collections to see what the UB Libraries own, and to stay up-to-date in your subject area.

Current periodicals in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences and Engineering are located in the current periodicals area, on the third floor of Lockwood Library. The periodicals are placed in an alphabetical order by title.


Using search interfaces like Google can lead you to an ocean of good and bad information.  Being critical of everything you see on the Internet is crucial when getting background information for an academic writing assignment.  Professors often prohibit students from citing Internet sites on a research paper so be careful that you understand what is acceptable and unacceptable to quote.  However, there are places on the Internet that will give you references that you may want to track down through your library.

  • Wikipedia
    From Wikipedia's own page, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit".  This includes the 10 year old kid down the street so reading the entry and treating it as fact is not the best thing to do.  Instead use the References or Further Readings at the end of an entry to verify the information presented in the Wikipedia entry.
  • Google Books
    Enter your search terms in Google books and digitized holdings of some of the worlds greatest academic libraries will appear.  Google collaborated with some of the finest research libraries in the world to digitize items found in the "public domain".  They also provide access to chapters within contemporary books.  This might give you just enough background information to get your paper started without coming in to the library to borrow a book.
  • Google Scholar
    Here you are finding scholarly research, but from a limited number of journals.  Once you put in your search terms you can get a good overview of a topic by limiting to time period on the left. **Tip: Select "Settings" from the main page then "Library Links" (on the left).  Once there enter University at Buffalo and select the university.  This then allows you to find the article through your library by clicking the "Find it @ UB" link.