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Portuguese Language, Literature, and Culture: 2. Informações de Referência

Step 2: Getting Informed through Background Information

The second step of the research process often happens simultaneously with the first step. We use background, or reference, resources like encyclopedias (think Wikipedia), dictionaries, handbooks, atlases, and other background sources to learn important names, dates, and theories that are related to a research question. Exploring these details can lead us to new ideas and questions that can help shape our research question. Ultimately, using background information can help us get informed so we are ready to do the foreground research in the literature and humanities databases and in the library catalog and other sources. 

Reference Databases

Reference works like encyclopedias and atlases contain background information that help inform you so that you're ready to do foreground research. What's the difference? Typically scholars do not cite background information because the information is already well known in their field or easy to find. Foreground research is what I call the stuff that you cite - the journal articles, books, and other sources you use to build your arguments and inform your projects and papers.

Explore these databases below to learn more about the context (the people, places, eras, themes) of your research topic. Taking time to do this before diving into the databases can help you search more efficiently later on. 

Tip! Keep your eyes peeled for new keywords!

Literary Reference Databases

Using Wikipedia for Research and other Reference Sources

As you gather background information about your topic, your research question may change and that’s okay. Background information should inform you of what’s already known about your topic so that you can ask questions that truly require research to answer. Sometimes background information can be called “reference information.” In fact, there’s a whole section of Norlin Library that has reference materials.


Wikipedia sphere logo Wikipedia name text

One place you can start is Wikipedia, but be sure to check other sources including library subscription encyclopedias (see links in the "Reference Databases" box). You can use Wikipedia to:

  1. Do some initial searching and learn about related topics
  2. Find keywords that you can use in database searches
  3. Find links to references to useful, and hopefully, credible sources

Be careful:

  1. Do not cite to Wikipedia. Since anyone can edit this online resource, it can be difficult to cite an author or evaluate that author for credibility
  2. Do not believe everything you read on Wikipedia. Try verifying the information through another credible source, like a library reference database

Background Information in Books

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Books often contain general overviews of a topic. Search OneSearch or Chinook to find books on your topic. 

Find a book that is related to your topic, then use it's Subject Headings to search for similar books. Reference books often have Subject Headings that include terms like Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, Characters, Biographies, Bibliographies, etc.


Latin American literature -- Dictionaries
Portuguese language -- Glossaries, vocabularies, etc  
Authors, Latin American -- Biography -- Dictionaries  
Theater -- Latin America -- Dictionaries  
Literary criticism -- European -- Spanish & Portuguese.  

Pause to Reflect

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Consider the scope of your research question at this point. Have you done enough background research to explore your topic further? What dates, figures, themes, or historical events do you still need to know about? 

Before going onto the next step, consider how much research it will take to answer your question. If it's a lot, you might want to narrow your focus. If, however, your question is very specific, you may have to think bigger. 

Research Strategies: Find Background Info

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The Library Website has a page dedicated to Research Strategies where you can explore research tips, strategies, and suggestions form your librarians. Below are links to two of our Research Strategies pages to get you started:

Research Process: Develop Search Terms

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Using your research question, identify the main concepts that are involved. Try to avoid general words like 'impact' or 'effect' because they are going to appear in all sorts of writings from many different fields. Stick to concepts unique to your research question. These concepts can be translated into keywords for searching. 


  • Identify nouns and noun phrases in your research question
  • Consider how experts or academics talk about the concept
  • Are there more or less-specific terms that relate to your concept? Narrow or broader terms that relate?
  • Would it be useful to use synonyms or antonyms in other languages for searching?

Use the link below to learn more about how to develop strong search terms.