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Chester Fritz Library Research How Tos

Provides information on library research

How to Use Encyclopedias

How to Use an Encyclopedia Successfully

In this Guide, you'll learn:

· How to use an encyclopedia to choose and narrow your topic

· How to generate keywords for your research

· How to Map Your Research Process

When your professor assigns a research project or paper, you might want to choose your topic right then, and go straight into researching and writing. But that's a little bit like starting a trip by just hopping in your car and driving. You might end up somewhere really cool by accident, but you'll have a better trip and get to your destination faster if you have a plan.        

Step 1: Picking Your Topic 

You probably start planning your trip with very broad research that gets narrower over time.


Similar to planning a trip, you do a little research to choose a topic. You need to explore a little to find out what exactly you want to research and what kind information you need.


Outside of school, you probably start your research with Wikipedia. Wikipedia has articles that summarize the main concepts and background of a topic or issue.

That’s why everyone likes to use it.


For academic research, you would use an encyclopedia. Like Wikipedia, an encyclopedia contains very general information on broad topics, giving you a baseline knowledge of the subject. Unlike Wikipedia, an encyclopedia is written by experts and cites reliable, academic sources.                            

Step 2: What Are Encyclopedias Good For?

Encyclopedias are really good at certain things including:


  • giving general information written by experts


  • giving you that basic understanding of your topic so you can ask better questions and know what information you’re looking for

It might help to explain how encyclopedias get made. To write an encyclopedia, one or more experts read all of the existing books and articles on a topic and write a short summary of that information. Hundreds of these summaries on related topics are grouped together to make an encyclopedia. It takes around five years to make an encyclopedia.



Encyclopedias do not work well if you’re looking for a really narrow or specific topic. For instance, if I’m planning to research special problems faced by the homeless LBGTQ+ population, there’s probably not an encyclopedia article on that. Instead, I’d want to look at encyclopedia articles on broader topics, like:


  • homelessness


  • LBGTQ+ issues


And because encyclopedias take 5 years to write, recent events won’t be covered or have their own articles yet.


Additionally, online reference works, like Credo or online encyclopedias, aren’t like Google. You can’t type in a long string of words or a question and get results. If I type in "what are some gender disparities faced by women in higher education?" I’m not going to get any results. Instead I need to search something like "gender higher education" in order to find an article.



It's important to make sure before you begin researching that you have a topic that isn't too broad or too narrow. If you have a topic that’s too broad, an encyclopedia will help you find subtopics that you can use to narrow it down.If you have a topic that’s too narrow, you can explore broader but related topics to find other ideas to incorporate into your topic to expand it.



So, to summarize, an encyclopedia article:


  • gives you an overview of a topic so you can consider the different issues and ideas included in that topic.


  • can help you narrow down and refine your topic if it’s too broad, and expand upon it if it’s too narrow.


  • provides you with alternate search keywords you can use when you start to look for books and articles.


  • gives you expert terminology and other words you might not have known or considered to search with.

Step 3: How to Use an Encyclopedia Entry To Find and Narrow Your Topic

For example, let’s say I was considering writing a paper on cage free livestock, and found this encyclopedia article.


As I read through I see that within cage free livestock there are different sub-topics. Such as the history of the cage free movement, or the environmental benefits of cage free farming.



Finding these smaller pieces of my topic will help me narrow down what specifically I want to talk about. Instead of talking about every aspect of the cage free livestock movement, I can choose between these smaller pieces. So I might decide to focus on how it contributes to sustainability and the environment.


Step 4: Finding Keywords to Search More Effectively

The next thing I would want to do is use my article to identify keywords that I can use when I begin searching for books and articles on this topic. When I started searching, I only had 3 keywords in mind.

  • cage free
  • livestock
  • benefits

But as I go through the article, I can find more keywords to use.


For instance, even though I searched for "cage free livestock", throughout the article I see that my term is used interchangeably with "free range". That means that some articles and books might call "cage free" "free range" instead. This is important to know because if I only search for books and articles using cage free, I might miss any that use free range instead.




I also look for and identify other important words that are used by experts in the field and are related to those narrower issues and ideas within my topic that interest me, in this case how cage free farming related to sustainability.



 So in addition to my three initial keywords, I now have nine other keywords that I found in my article.


  • cage free

  • livestock

  • benefits

  • sustainable farming

  • free range

  • pasturized

  • grass fed

  • battery cages

  • alternative agriculture movement

  • factory farming

  • agribusiness

  • land exhaust

Choosing a Topic

Choosing a topic for your research project can seem like a daunting task, however, it might help to keep in mind that choosing a topic IS research. You may find that your topic will narrow or expand as you go through the research process. The initial topic that you choose may end up being something completely different from what you started with - it's all a part of the research process! Watch this short video for a brief explanation on how a topic might change as a researcher works!

Transcript to Picking Your Topic Is Research Video

Research Hacks: Searching to Learn

  • Skim first, read later: When beginning to find sources to learn about your topic, you can save yourself a lot of time and frustration by skimming an article first. If an article has an abstract, start by reading that -- it typically contains an overview of the content and a preview of the main argument. Then, if it looks relevant, you can spend some time reading it fully once you've selected a few sources to provide context for the topic or issue you've chosen to address.

  • Check out the bibliography: Especially once you've located a solid source or two, take note of who they cite in their essays. Are there any names that come up again and again? Do any of the sources they cite sound like they'd help you learn more about your topic? When you find a potential source in a bibliography, make note of it and search for it in the UND databases -- we may just have it!

  • Use varied search terms: Even if you strike gold with your first search, don't underestimate the value of using different or more specific search terms. Look for common terms and phrases that appear frequently in the sources that seem most relevant to your topic, and then use that vocabulary to make the search feature work more efficiently for you. Using this feedback loop will yield even better results. The broader your base of knowledge on a topic, the better prepared you'll be when you start using the information you've learned. While you do want to know when it's time to stop researching and begin writing, it can't hurt to have a little more information at your disposal!

  • Ask questions: Even if your research is going well, be sure to ask a librarian or your instructor when any questions pop up. As experts in their fields, they will be able to quickly offer suggestions and solutions to most of the hurdles you may encounter. And ask your peers -- remember, they are researching too! Collaboration is a key component in learning, so don't hesitate to ask around if you encounter an obstacle during the research process.