Using and Evaluating Print Resources
Lesson 5

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Subject Encyclopedias

You are familiar with general encyclopedias like Encyclopedia Britannica or the Academic American Encyclopedia. You have probably used a general encyclopedia in high school, or own one at home. General encyclopedias are written for the average layperson and are targeted for junior and senior high school students.

General encyclopedias cover a wide range of knowledge at a very basic level. While they are quite useful for basic fact checking, they are very limited in their depth and usefulness for academic level research.

Subject encylopedias, on the other hand, provide in-depth, scholarly coverage of a single subject area or discipline. The articles in subject encyclopedias are produced by scholars in the field and usually provide an in-depth bibliography.

One of the best ways to start your research is to see if someone has already written an overview that outlines the most important concepts, issues, arguments, and facts on the subject and provides a concise list of recommended readings. This is precisely what a subject encyclopedia does.

A researcher looking for orientation on United States isolationism
would find less than a column in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and about a page worth scattered among several entries in the Academic American Encyclopedia. The subject specific Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy has a ten-page article on the entire history and philosophy of U.S. isolationism and an extensive bibliography of resources that are more specific and right on target.

Subject specific encyclopedias are published on just about any topic imaginable. Some are one or two volumes in length, others can have as many as twenty volumes or more. Subject encyclopedias are designed for an educated reader.

Here are just a few of the over 700 subject encyclopedias and their Library of Congress Subject Headings located in the Reference section of the Spring Hill College Library:

Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History Protest, Power and Change Encyclopedia

International Encyclopedia of Sexuality
Encyclopedia of American Social History
Sex--Encyclopedias United States--Social conditions--Encyclopedias

How Do I Find Subject Specific Encyclopedias
That Cover My Topic in the Library Catalog?

"Is splitting off cells from embryos to clone human beings ethically acceptable?"

To determine which encyclopedia to use for locating information on your subject, you must think about how the topic fits into the structure of knowledge. Given the nature of the above research question, you would be right in assuming that you could find information in subject encyclopedias in the areas of science, biology, human biology, culture, ethics, and philosophy.

Use terms from your research questions and Boolean searching techniques to translate your question into a computer search.

(ethics OR biology OR cloning OR genetics) AND encyclopedias

Enter your computer search and click the 'search by subject' button.

Among the results you will discover these two very useful encyclopedias in the area of ethics:

Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics Encyclopedia of Bioethics
Applied ethics--Encyclopedias Bioethics--Encyclopedias

Both these encyclopedias are multi-volume sets. To learn how to use these encyclopedias, look at the following lessons.

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