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Guide to the Research Process: 1d. Find Background Information

This guide provides an introduction to the skills needed to conduct research.

Sources of Background Information

Background information can be found in:

  • reference books
  • textbooks
  • general dictionaries
  • specialized dictionaries
  • general encyclopedias
  • subject-specific encyclopedias  
  • article databases


Reference Books

Reference books are a good starting point for your research:

  • when you know very little about a topic
  • when you need an overview of a subject
  • when you want a quick summary of basic ideas on the topic
  • to discover the names of important people in the field
  • to become familiar with the vocabulary of the field

Specialized Dictionaries

Specialized dictionaries:

  • provide definitions for specialized vocabulary
  • often provide lengthy explanations associated with the vocabulary, similar to an encyclopedia article

Why Do You Need Background Information?

Once you have identified some keywords, the next step is to find background information on your topic. Background research serves many purposes.

  • If you are unfamiliar with the topic, it provides a good overview of the subject matter.
  • It helps you to identify important facts related to your topic -- terminology, dates, events, history, and names or organizations.
  • It can alert you to key issues and controversies.
  • It can give you a sense of how your topic relates to other topics.
  • It can help you to refine your topic.
  • It can provide you with an introduction to the specialized vocabulary relating to your topic.
  • It might lead you to bibliographies that you can use to find additional sources of information on your topic.

Specialized Encyclopedias

Specialized encyclopedias have:

  • articles on specific topics within a particular area
  • articles written by experts in the field
  • articles that provide bibliographies which list other sources on the same subject
  • articles that usually contain cross-references to other related topics
  • articles that provide an introduction to specialized vocabulary

Reference Books to Consider

The Library provides a selection of reference works in print format, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks. Here are some examples of selected sources.

Anchor Bible Dictionary

New Westminster Dictionary of Church History

A Dictionary of Pastoral Care

Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith

Encyclopedia of Christianity

Encyclopedia of the Early Church

 A Handbook of Theological Terms

Online Reference Sources

In addition to the print reference resources, there are some electronic reference materials.  Please understand that these are not to replace the print resources mentioned above. 


Dictionary of African Christian Biographers

          "The DACB is an international undertaking aimed at producing an electronic database containing the essential biographical facts of African Christian leaders, evangelists, and lay workers chiefly responsible for laying the foundations and advancing the growth of Christian communities in Africa."  Contains nearly 1,000 biographies.

New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge

 The 1907 edition of this monumental 13 volume reference work.

The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia, as its name implies, proposes to give its readers extensive and authoritative information on the entire cycle of Catholic interests, action and doctrine.

Study The International Study Bible Encyclopedia

This practical, authoritative, and complete classic reference encyclopedia explains every significant word in the Bible and Apocrypha. It gives detailed information on the language and literature of Bible lands, and the historical and religious environments of the people of the Bible in articles by nearly 200 scholars.

Christian Cyclopedia

An online version of a printed one-volume compendium of historical and theological data that is Lutheran based. This Internet version allows easy access to the names and terms of significant people, places, ideas, and institutions in church history and “secular” history. While it has the evangelical leaning of the Missori Synod, it still has some good information!
<>, the Internet’s premiere free encyclopedia, provides users with more than 57,000 frequently updated articles from the Columbia Encyclopedia, Seventh Edition. Each article is enhanced with links to newspaper and magazine articles as well as pictures and maps – all provided by eLibrary.

Concise Dictionary of Religion by Irving Hexham

The 1994 edition is a handy and reliable dictionary of terms from different religions.  Lexicons based on King James and New American Standard.  Downloadable Greek and Hebrew fonts in addition to audio are used for assistance.

Believe—Religious Information Source

BELIEVE is a collection of over 2,000 articles by scholars on around 900 religious subjects.   It is essentially an online dictionary.

Ecclesiastical Language

A substantial and straightforward glossary of ecclesiastical language.

This web site includes more than 4.000 articles and chapters in full text. Topics organized by topic include Old and New Testament, Theology, Ethics, History and Sociology of Religion, Communication and Cultural Studies, Pastoral Care, Counseling, Homiletics, Worship, Missions and Religious EducationAn online reference site.

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations

“A collection of passages, phrases, and proverbs traced to their sources in ancient and modern literature.” Based on the 1901 edition, searchable with chronological and alphabetical indexes.

Outline of Objects and Topics in Scrolls from the Dead Sea Scrolls

A scholarly site with texts, graphic files of the Scrolls and general information on the world of the Dead Sea scrolls.