Getting to Know You: The Encyclopedia in College

Last week, I received an email with the following lament: It’s fine to write on thinking critically about topics, but what are you supposed to do when you know nothing about the topic in the first place? 

The Jolly Librarian sympathizes. A long, long time ago, instructors could depend on students having something called common knowledge. Students would come to classes knowing certain writers, historical events, and important people. Looking back, this common knowledge probably centered mainly on white, male, European and American people and events, which is not a good thing, but it did mean that when an instructor said, “You all know what Emerson said,” that even if we didn’t know what Emerson said, we knew who he was.

Those days have long passed. And while it can be frustrating for instructors, it can be quite dis-spiriting for students. It’s not a lot of fun to be expected to know enough about a topic to critique it when you don’t know anything about it at all.

This is where the encyclopedia can be your friend. The encyclopedia doesn’t get a lot of love from college professors, and students are likely to hear, “You can’t use an encyclopedia.” 

And it is true that an encyclopedia entry shouldn’t be on your Works Cited page. But an encyclopedia is perfect for providing you with the following:

  • Common knowledge. An encyclopedia entry gives an overview of the topic. It provides the basics. When you’ve read entry on melanoma, for example, then you have “non-expert” knowledge. It is from this base that you build your research.
  • Questions for future research. Perhaps you read in the entry on melanoma that doctors recommend that people wear sunscreen. You start wondering what SPF is enough to prevent skin cancer. Or if those fancy sunscreens with SPFs of 50 or above necessary. And that’s where you begin your research.
  • Keywords. One difficulty students often have is finding good search terms when they’re using databases to find information on their topic. Encyclopedia articles are good for discovering the vocabulary that’s used in the field.

The encyclopedia will never have a starring role in the research paper. Still, when you don’t know much about a topic, it’s a great place to begin. 

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