Encyclopedias are reference books that cover many topics and are an excellent place to gather background information.

An encyclopedia can be one book, but it is usually a set of books. Each book is called a volume. Encyclopedias tell about important people, places, events, things, and ideas. Each entry is a short, factual article written by a subject expert, which makes it a source of reliable information. An encyclopedia will cover a little bit about nearly every topic. It will probably have photographs, drawings, charts, and maps. 

What is the difference between a general and specialized encyclopedia?

There are two types of encyclopedias: general and specialized subject encyclopediasGeneral encyclopedias contain information about a variety of topics. Some examples are World Book and Encyclopedia BritannicaSpecialized encyclopedias are about a specific topic. For example, there can be an encyclopedia only about animals or one only about U.S. history. See this page for more information about specialized encyclopedias. 

When do I use a general encyclopedia?

Use a general encyclopedia when you need the following:

  • background information on a topic
  • key ideas, important dates, or concepts

Where do I find a general encyclopedia?

An encyclopedia can be in print, online, or both. In print, it can be a single book or multiple volumes. Typically encyclopedias are found in the library either in the reference section or its own area with a call number of 030.

How is a general encyclopedia organized?

An encyclopedia is typically arranged alphabetically by subject. 

How do I use a print general encyclopedia?

To find information, look for it alphabetically by subject or consult the index in the back of the volume or the master index for the set, to find the page numbers on which your topic is located. Longer articles may be divided into sections, and each section has a heading. Scan the headings to see which parts of the article may answer your question. 

How do I use an online general encyclopedia?

Online general encyclopedias may or may not also be available in print, and they often include even more information than a print version. To find information, you can usually browse or search. To search, enter the keyword or subject you are looking for into the search box at the top of the page. If you do not know how to spell the word, guess, and it will bring up a list of suggestions. Click on the article you are interested in reading. Sometimes there is a list of topics for users to browse. In that case, simply click on the topic that interests you. To find specific words on a page, use the find function. Use Control + F (or Command + F for Macs) to open a search box.

Some online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia, can be edited by anyone, so its information should be verified.

How do I use a database to find a general encyclopedia?

Searching a database by keyword or subject will give you results from many source types -- magazines, journals, newspapers, eBooks, and sometimes encyclopedias. The advanced search feature in most databases allows you to limit your search to the type of source you are looking for, including only articles that are full text (versus just a summary of the article).

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