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LING 211: Languages of the World (Daniels)

Step 2 - Finding Background Information

Tree icon from Noun ProjectLike the roots of a tree, background information is not always visible but it does play an important role in your research.

Starting research often means finding an overview of a topic, checking facts and data, checking dates of significant events, or looking up definitions of specialized terms. Reference books can give background information, including the scope of the topic area, noteworthy people, and statistics to help jumpstart your research.

Background Info/Reference Databases - General Subjects

Before you Start...

Before you start any research on your topic, you must develop some background knowledge including facts, dates, and names of important people, places, or theories. Books and websites can provide you with that knowledge.

This is important because:

  1. Background sources give you the language that people are using to discuss your topic. You will use this language (look for keywords!) when you start to search databases for scholarly articles and resources on the topic.
  2. This "pre-research" gives you a sense if your topic is focused enough. If your initial searches bring back so many results you can't even figure out what the language is, then you should consider narrowing your topic.

Remember, background information is always a starting point for research, not an ending point.

General Reference Databases (library subscription resources)

Open Web (Free) Resources

Reference Materials for Linguistics

Linguistics Databases with Reference Content

Linguistics Reference Materials

Handbooks, Encyclopedias, and Dictionaries

These types of resources can help you identify a topic for your research, provide useful definitions,  give an overview of a specific issue, help you identify key research in the field, and suggest other materials which might be useful for your research.

Information About Languages

Some of the print resources above also have e-book versions. See links, above.



Resources from the Open Web

References Sources for Cultural information


Print Reference Sources


Specific groups: (a sample)

  • Encyclopedia of American immigration
  • Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East An Encyclopedia
  • Encyclopedia of Arabic language and linguistics                  Knight Library Reference    PJ 6031 .E53 2006
  • Handbook of North American Indians  Volume 17                 Knight Library Reference    E 77 .H25
  • The Handbook of Hispanic Linguistics
  • Encyclopedia of modern Jewish culture                               Knight Library Reference    DS102.8 .E56 2005
  • The Italian American experience : an encyclopedia               Knight Library Reference      E184.I8 I673 200

Using Wikipedia for Research (Infographic)

In addition to being a great place to start exploring an unfamiliar topic, Wikipedia is considered a tertiary source. Writers of tertiary sources synthesize information from secondary sources and strive to report them in a tone that is as unbiased and neutral as possible. 

Some tertiary sources are cited in academic research and others are not. This practice varies by discipline so contact your instructor or a librarian with questions!

Thanks to IUPUI University Library for allowing reuse of this graphic under a Creative Commons license.

Step 2: Pause to Reflect

Reflecting person icon from Noun ProjectWhat is considered background information can vary by discipline. If you're not sure what it is or where to find it, check out this YouTube video on primary, secondary, and tertiary sources from Suffolk County Library.

Are you citing background information in your research paper/project? You can always check with your instructor to see if that is acceptable for the assignment or within your discipline/major.