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What's a background source? Why would I use one?

A background source provides context information concisely and thoroughly.  Context information includes:

  • overviews of concepts or theories (how/when/why a concept developed & why it matters) 
  • brief or extended definitions
  • lists of key information sources to consult on your topic
  • historical timelines and explanations of events
  • biographical information
  • statistics, trends
  • maps, charts, graphs

Consult background sources:

  • to get the big picture
  • to start developing a thorough and critical understanding of a topic or concept
  • to learn about the history of a concept or event
  • to find keywords to use for searching online library databases and library catalogs for books and articles on your topic
  • to refine your research topic into a research question
  • to learn about the key points of your topic in order to write a paper or develop a presentation
  • to find another angle on a topic, idea, or argument when you get stuck
  • to find authoritative information you can quote
  • to find information on the historical background of a social or political issue
  • to understand current events and issues so that you can develop an argument or take a specific position

Two categories of background sources are:

  • general sources that have a little information about a wide range of subjects. For example:

            The New Encyclopaedia Britannica

            Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.)

            Hammond World Atlas

  • subject-specific sources that have in-depth information about a single subject and are appropriate for academic research.  For example:

            Encyclopedia of Communication Theory

            A Dictionary of Media and Communication

            Oxford Encyclopedia of Rhetoric






Subject Guide

Kenneth Haggerty's picture
Kenneth Haggerty
307 McWherter Library, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN

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