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UMW Libraries
Simpson Library | Special Collections

Research Skills for First-Year Seminars (FSEMs)

Background Information

When you’re looking for a topic, a good first step is to look for background information.  “Background information” means short summaries or overviews of topics.

A good place to find background information is in reference books. They’ll give you the basic facts about your topic, which tells you what to type in search boxes to find more sources. Reference books let you…

  • gain a broad and general understanding of the topic.
  • learn important names, key facts, issues and debates, and answers to questions.
  • identify relevant search terms and strategies.
  • identify sources for further reading

Types of Reference Books

The Simpson Library has hundreds of print and online reference books.  Different types of reference books provide different types of background information.

There are also different types of reference materials that provide you with different types of useful information.

  • Encyclopedias - provide brief articles explaining a topic. 
  • Dictionaries - provide word definitions and other information about words
  • Chronologies - covers important people, places, and events over periods of a decade or century
  • Biographical Resources - contain information about the lives and accomplishments of notable people in various fields of achievement or areas of study.
  • Handbooks - contain detailed, advanced information about a particular subject areas.
  • Almanacs - annual publications that contain time sensitive information about geography and politics, economic data, astronomical data, world records, tides, weather, and statistics.
  • Atlases -  contain maps that associate different types of data with geography

NOTE: Links to various reference materials have been included for the sake of example.

Print and online reference books can be identified using Quest.  The print Reference books are shelved on the first floor of the Simpson Library in the Reference section.