Encyclopedias cover many topics and are an excellent source to gather background information. They cover important people, places, events, things, and ideas and often have photographs, drawings, charts, timelines, and maps. Encyclopedias are collections of short, factual entries often written by different contributors who are knowledgeable about the topic. Therefore, encyclopedias are reliable sources of information because they have been edited by experts in various fields.

There are two types of encyclopedias: general and specialized subject encyclopedias. General encyclopedias, such as World Book, provide concise overviews on a wide variety of topics. Specialized subject encyclopedias contain in-depth entries focusing on one field of study. For example, there can be an encyclopedia about animals or one about U.S. history.

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 either in a separate area or in the reference section 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.

How do I use an online general encyclopedia?
Online general encyclopedias may be exact replicas of the equivalent print book, while some are published exclusively online. Online general encyclopedias often have a searchable index, or a typical index that links automatically to the page indicated. Online encyclopedias are also typically searchable by either keyword or subject.

Unlike traditional encyclopedias, some online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia, can be edited by anyone. Therefore, information should be verified.

How do I use a database to find a general encyclopedia?
Searching a database by topic will result in sources from magazines, journals, newspapers, eBooks, and more. Most databases' advanced search feature allows your search to be limited by the type of source you are looking for. You can also limit your source by date of article or by a specific encyclopedia.