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History Research Guide

Learn about the process and sources for historical research

What is background information?

stack of booksBackground information can help you learn more about your topic and develop your research question and approach.

Common examples of background information sources are dictionaries, encyclopedias, and bibliographies. You may find these sources either as individual books or ebooks by searching our library catalog, or through a library database.

Background information usually adds one or more of the following benefits to your research process:

  • introduces you to important terms or concepts,
  • points toward other works on your research topic,
  • describes common ideas other scholars already have about the subject.

For best results, seek background information early in the research process. That way, you can use what you learn about foundational concepts to make changes to your research question or plan for next steps.

How do I find background information?

Background information sources may contain information on many topics from multiple disciplines. You're probably already familiar with one source for general background information, Wikipedia.

To find this type of background information through UH Libraries, try searching the database below with keywords related to your research question.

Some background information sources are less general and instead cover a variety of topics related to a specific person or time period. These types of background information sources tend to be more detailed than the general sources described above.

History is one subject area in which these types of background sources are especially common. You may find databases, books, and ebooks dedicated to background information on highly specific topics, such as the online encyclopedia Handbook of Texas Online.

To look for books or ebooks of background information on your topic, try searching keywords associated with your research topic in the library's catalog, specifying the search term as a subject, rather than title.

How do I know if it's background information?

Sometimes it's difficult to determine exactly what type of information you are seeing when you're doing research. Encyclopedias and dictionaries have a reputation for being large sets of books with many volumes, or online sites with hundreds of linked pages.

However, you may find that sources of background information, even certain encyclopedias and dictionaries, don't look like that at all. This is especially true in disciplines like History, in which highly specific encyclopedias such as Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era may be relatively short when compared to broad, multi-subject books.


Instead of relying on the external appearance of your sources to determine what kind of source you are using, it's helpful to know a few traits that distinguish many sources of background information from peer-reviewed, scholarly books:

  • Sections of text cover specific people, places, events, or subjects and have a narrow focus
  • Text sections have simple titles, usually only the name of the person, place, event, or subject covered
  • Entries are organized alphabetically, sometimes within thematic parts
  • Entries do not attempt to make an original argument or interpret a lot of primary sources about the subject, but instead summarize important, broad points

If you have any questions about background information, please reach out to a librarian!